Former halfpipe phenom Kevin Pearce is the heart of “The Crash Reel,” a sobering look at family, snowboarding and traumatic brain injuries
Homepage photo: Kevin Pearce during a pre-injury photo shoot in Breckenridge. Photo: Adam Moran.
Interview by Phil Lindeman
If you go
What: A showing of the HBO documentary “The Crash Reel,” followed by a Q&A session with film subject and former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce
When: Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Vilar Center, Beaver Creek
The film showing is a joint project of Vail Valley Medical Center and Beaver Creek Resort. For tickets, see the Vilar Center website. For more info on Kevin Pearce and his foundation, LoveYourBrain, see his official website.
By his own admission, Kevin Pearce is one of the lucky ones.
In late 2009, with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver just a few months away, the Vermont-born snowboarder was at the height of his career. He and childhood friend-turned-rival Shaun White were frontrunners for halfpipe gold, trading top podium spots at the X Games, Dew Tour and Burton U.S. Open. Few people could touch the two.
With unbridled support from a swath of big-name sponsors like Nike and Oakley, Pearce traveled throughout the Rocky Mountains for early-season training, finally landing at Park City, Utah. The 22-year-old’s goal: the double underflip, considered the Holy Grail of halfpipe tricks at the time.
Then the inevitable happened. After several close calls, Pearce over-rotated and fell from nearly 35 feet to land on his head. Even for friends like fellow pros Danny Davis and Scotty Lago – the guys watching from the top of the pipe – the crash seemed devastating.
For Pearce, the next year was a blur of hospital stays, physical therapy and visits from fellow traumatic brain injury survivors, most also in their early 20s. A few were on his same level, struggling with double vision and balance issues, but most were far worse. One teenager was admitted to Denver’s Craig Hospital around the same time as Pearce, only to pass away within a few days. Without exception, everyone racked up massive medical bills: The pro claims his expenses reached $20,000 per day while in recovery.
These snippets from Pearce’s life – along with the effect his recovery had on family, friends and the action sports world as a whole – form the heart of “The Crash Reel,” a just-released HBO documentary by two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker (“Waste Land,” “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom”). As with most pro skiers and riders, cameras caught nearly every moment of the ordeal, from the heated Olympic race to Pearce’s gut-wrenching crash to the long, slow realization that the tiniest second injury could kill him. It gives the film an immediate yet quilt-like feel, without the dry reportage and staged reenactments of a talking-head doc. (Walker estimates she went through nearly 18 terabytes of archival footage from 232 separate sources, what she dubs “some kind of world record.”)
That dedication also leads to small, almost stunningly raw moments between Pearce and his tight-knit family, including older brother David, who was born with Down syndrome and admits to hating his condition. Even Shaun White gives a brief glimpse at the insecurities that both drive and isolate him.
Shortly after leaving the powder fields of Utah for a showing of “The Crash Reel” at the Vilar Center, Pearce spoke with SneakPEAK about life after his injury, the catharsis of the documentary and his newfound love of the backcountry.
SneakPEAK: How was the riding this weekend?
Kevin Pearce: Oh my god, dude, we just hit up Powder Mountain in Utah and it was off. That place is pretty undercover – nobody goes there, and there are no lines at all. It’s kind of old and the lifts are slow, with something like one high-speed quad. The mountain was actually closed yesterday, but we were hanging with the owners and they got us a few snowcats. We spent the whole day tracking untouched snow with some friends. You know Luke Mitrani? It was him and a few others.
SP: Is that the only kind of riding you’re allowed to do these days, just powder?
KP: I can go ride the resorts and whatever, but I’ve really learned to love riding the powder and the deep stuff. That’s what I’m all about now, is getting away from everything to be on my own. I filmed a few video parts for Absinthe and Mack Dawg in the backcountry, but it was just dabbling. I really just focused on competition back then. Now, I’m all about it. I just spent a month in Canada at a snowcat operation called Baldface. That was insane.
SP: Have you found a way to enjoy snowboarding in the same way as before?
KP: Yeah, but it’s a lot different, a whole lot different. There’s no way to really explain how it’s different than the X Games, but it’s really not about comparing it to what I used to be doing. I’m just thankful to be riding. A lot of people who have brain injuries aren’t able to bounce back.
SP: Onto the film. “The Crash Reel” is both magnetic and tough to watch, usually at the same time. I imagine you’ve seen it at this point – what’s the hardest part to take in?
KP: It’s seeing what my family and friends had to deal with. It’s everyone else. Sure, it sucked and was hard as all hell for me, but those guys were outside looking in, you know? I put so many people through extra hassle and extra work. That’s not who I am – I don’t like putting an extra burden on the people close to me.
SP: I think that really comes across. The film is brutally honest – you and everyone involved pulls no punches. Did you have second thoughts about documenting your recovery, even when things looked bleak?
KP: For me, it was more like a great opportunity. I have an amazing family and this chance to let them show the world what happened, just tell this story, and I think it has been really helpful for other people. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t as fortunate as me and don’t have the kind of support I did. That’s beyond head injuries – whatever people have, I hope they see this and realize they can come back with the right attitude.
SP: In a letter about “The Crash Reel,” Lucy Walker wrote, “extreme sports stars are filmed both on and off the slopes more than perhaps anyone except reality TV stars.” Was it odd to give a film crew unlimited access to your life when it didn’t involve getting the next trick or film part?
KP: It really wasn’t, because just like you said, I’ve had cameras around me my entire life. Cameras are just invisible to me now – I don’t notice them. Being able to capture those little moments was something that made for a better experience, and I think the film is better because of those.
SP: Was it almost liberating to get in front of the camera again, even if it was documenting this incredibly traumatic experience?
KP: Yeah, I guess it felt like getting back to normal. It was making things regular again, getting away from the doctors and therapists and that hospital environment. I didn’t have much understanding of where I was and how injured I was at the time. I just focused on what I was told to do and recovering, because the whole idea of how bad I was never set in. I look back on that and just have to think, “Damn, I was so severely injured and still I wanted to get to the Olympics.” Seeing that now – me in the hospital not knowing what was going on – is very powerful.
SP: Oddly enough, the film doesn’t feature any sit-down interviews with you, just your family and friends. Was that the director’s choice?
KP: That was totally her. I actually did countless hours of interviews with her, just sitting in front of a camera going through questions, but the fact none of that is in there is kind of weird. It was surprising when I saw it. Then again, I’m happy with the movie. I let her do her job, so stepping back and not being involved worked out for the best.
SP: The film makes it clear that family is a major influence in your life. Was it always like that, or did you grow closer to your siblings and parents after the accident?
KP: We’ve always been like that. It’s how we were raised – our family hasn’t changed, other than my relationship with David. I think the film does a great job of showing him and the relationship with have. Hanging with David is exactly how it’s shown in the film. He’s incredible.
SP: For me, many of the film’s most intense moments involve David. During one of several family dinners, he says he doesn’t want you to die by falling again. How many of those talks do we never even see in the film?
KP: It’s funny – everyone says, “Oh my god, those family dinners are amazing,” but that’s just how we do it. When I’m home in Vermont, we do that just about every night. It’s foreign to think that a family dinner is a special thing – we do that regularly, and I think Lucy did a good job of showing what we do on a regular basis. Nothing was staged. She actually only came out to our house two times, and I remember she was freaking out about finding an ending for the movie. The final scene that ends up in the move, that’s just a one-shot thing – she didn’t return over and over to get the right moment.
SP: But footage from the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom is just as hard to watch for different reasons. You’ve said that’s the moment you realized you weren’t the same person on a board. Was it more difficult to go through two years of recovery or realize the thing you’d fought for, returning to pro riding, was impossible?
KP: You know, it was more difficult to realize how bad I was and how inured I was. I just wasn’t where I used to be, and that was intense and heavy to feel. Before then, I didn’t have any worries at all – I thought I’d be back at it, doing what I’d been doing up until my injury. Then that happened and I said, “Shit, this is not good.”
SP: Talk about expectations. Your family didn’t want you to return as a pro, but the film implies that sponsors, the media and your fans couldn’t wait for you to come back. Everyone had good intentions, but how was it to be in the middle of that tug of war?
KP: You know, it wasn’t a tug of war. Not once did I have pressure put on me from friends or family or sponsors. If anything, I’ve had the opposite of pressure, people telling me to take it easy and mellow out. The pressure was being smart on my own, figuring out what I could do and what was smartest with me.
SP: Along with vision and balance problems, the crash affected your mood and personality. Are those issues still around today?
KP: They really haven’t been too bad. It’s not that I really changed who I was – I’m the same Kevin, but they said there was the possibility I wouldn’t be. For how bad the injury is, I haven’t been affected too much. I’m still here, living this amazing life that I love, just in a new way.
SP: Although “The Crash Reel” focuses on your story, it becomes much larger, talking about action sports injuries in general. How can athletes balance progression with safety?
KP: I believe athletes need to be smart and be safe. If they can do that, they should be allowed to do what they want. The sports don’t need limits if everyone is confident and riding at their abilities. If people want to go out and learn triple corks and that’s at their level, I say go for it. I haven’t seen any cries to change the sports and make them safer or hold them back. They aren’t that dangerous – it happens to me and a couple of kids a year, but look at how many car accidents there are every year. Compared to how dangerous just life in general is, these sports aren’t that bad.
SP: I just read an interview with Terje Haakonson in Snowboard magazine. When the interviewer asked why he’s against the Olympics, he said it’s because the format gets away from snowboarding’s roots. What drew you so fiercely to the Olympics?
KP: I always wanted to be the best in the world at snowboarding. It seems to me like that’s what it’s come to – if you win the Olympics, that’s the biggest and greatest event. That’s what I wanted and the only thing I could thing of. Now, I don’t agree with everything about how the Olympics run their show.
SP: The film also touches on Sara Burke and mentions her family’s struggles with medical expenses. How do you raise awareness about the cost of devastating and lethal head injuries?
KP: I think it’s pretty unclear now. It should be up to the athletes – we’re supported from all these sponsors, so it’s up to us to make sure we’re safe and covered. I was lucky to have such good insurance at the time. We’re participating in dangerous sports, so we need to make sure we have the right protection.
SP: You don’t think insurance coverage should fall on the sponsors?
No, I don’t. Athletes just need to be more understanding of what’s going on and what they can do to be covered the best. In the end, we’re putting ourselves in danger. We should do what we can to protect ourselves.