Exactly two years ago, 24-year-old Kevin Pearce was in a coma. On December 31, 2009 he hit his head on a half pipe while snowboarding and suffered severe brain trauma in Park City, Utah.
And exactly 18 days ago Kevin Pearce was on a snowboard again. December 13, the day Pearce returned to the snow in Breckenridge, Colorado, marked the next step in his continual healing process.
"It's something I really needed for a long time," said Pearce. "It was almost more special than I could've imagined."
Pearce is reminded of the injury every day. He thinks about the day when he realized he wouldn't be competing at the 2010 Olympics because he woke up in a hospital bed. He will never be able to snowboard competitively again and still does eye therapy, physical therapy and cognitive therapy daily. He forgets where he left his wallet or cell phone regularly, and he lives with a friend because he still needs help with everyday tasks.
Pearce is the youngest of Pia and Simon Pearce's four children. He's grown closer to all of them, including his brother David, who has Down syndrome, since the accident. However, Pearce has always had a special bond with Adam, who is three years older than Pearce and currently the Burton snowboarding team manager. While all of Pearce's family was actively involved in the rehab process, Adam probably gave up the most.
From the first day at physical therapy, Adam was charged with making the rehab process less monotonous and more fun for Kevin. Adam spent all three and a half months with Pearce in the rehab facility in Denver, and his support was a big part of the reason Pearce was able to maintain a positive outlook.
"I didn't really consider another option." said Adam, who quit his job to be with his younger brother in his time of need. "My main goal was to make it as fun and enjoyable for Kevin as possible. ... I see Kevin's life in a totally different place if he didn't have the family support that he did."
Pearce also used his sense of humor and competitive nature to get through the rehab process. His humor is evident when he talks about his November 1 eye surgery to fix his vision which was unaligned vertically and horizontally. He no longer had to wear 1-inch thick prism glasses.
"I don't really know what that means to be honest," said Pearce about the scientific measurements of how bad his eyesight was. He did, however, know that having triple vision, which caused him to reach for the "wrong" pen and not see the waves when he was surfing, deemed the eye surgery necessary.
At first doctors told Pearce he would be able to snowboard recreationally one year after the incident. Brain recovery is very unpredictable and the time frame was later increased to two years. Pearce's mother knew no matter how long he had to wait that her youngest son would eventually be back on the slopes.
"I'm just very proud of him for waiting as long as he has," said his mother Pia. "I don't fully understand the feeling he gets when he snowboards, but it must be a feeling of freedom and happiness and well-being."
Snowboarding has provided a more fun form of therapy for Pearce. He's been able to reconnect with his FRENDS snowboarding crew ("There's no I in friends though this whole thing," according to Pearce) and family members who have supported him throughout the process.
"They don't like to take it, but I give them a lot of credit," said Pearce. "I haven't even had a beer in the last two years, and if my friends saw me with a beer they would have flipped."
Pearce's brain is still healing and even a small amount of alcohol could hinder the process. He knows he has an "invisible injury" that he must continue to heal through therapy. After all, he won't be fully recovered until he can beat his brother Adam at ping pong again.
"I still whoop his ass," said Adam, but he acknowledged that now Pearce has been winning occasional games recently. Pearce's reaction time is still slow, but it's improving and Adam is still helping make the process fun.
At the physical therapy center in Denver the Pearce brothers decided one day they would try to make everyone they saw smile or laugh to brighten up the atmosphere. Now all they have to do to get someone to smile is tell Kevin's story.