It was New Year’s Eve 2009 in Park City, Utah, just weeks before the start of the Olympic Winter Games, and U.S. snowboarding star Kevin Pearce wanted to hit the halfpipe to try and nail down a difficult trick he’d been planning to break out for the competition.
Like they’d done before, Kevin and his friend, fellow pro Luke Mitrani, played rock, paper, scissors to see who would attempt the dangerous cab double-cork first. Pearce lost, and dropped into the 22-foot pipe — the very same halfpipe that would be the site of a horrific crash that resulted in the death of freeskiing legend Sarah Burke two years later.
Nothing would ever be the same again for Kevin, who hit the lip of the pipe and tumbled violently, suffering a traumatic brain injury that very nearly took his life.
These days, the Vermont native no longer snowboards competitively, but has become an inspiration to many as an advocate for safety and mental health. His remarkable story of recovery is featured in the Whistler Film Festival’s closing film, The Crash Reel, playing Dec. 8, by Academy Award-nominated director Lucy Walker.
The documentary is an intensely personal film, capturing some of the most intimate and vulnerable moments of Kevin’s recovery as he struggled to reconcile his new life post-injury with the snowboarding superstar he was before. While many would be unwilling to share such a difficult experience on film, he doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to share his story.
“I have an awesome family as you can see in the film, and because of them it was easy to have the cameras around,” Kevin said. “Everybody didn’t know how it was going to turn out but we knew that there was a really important message here that we could share. Really, it was trying to make the most of a shitty situation and it seemed like this was a good opportunity to do that.”
Kevin will forever be linked to snowboarding’s biggest star, Shaun White. The two grew up competing against each other, and in the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics it was Kevin who was widely considered to be White’s stiffest competition.
What became clear through the movie was just how different the two stars approached the sport. When White’s sponsor dug out a massive halfpipe on a secluded Colorado mountain in the lead-up to the 2010 Games, sponsor Nike followed suit for Kevin, building him his own 22-foot pipe. While Kevin invited all of his boarder pals out to ride, White kept the location of his halfpipe secret, even making his girlfriend sign an agreement not to divulge the new tricks he was learning for the Olympics. Despite their wildly different tactics, Kevin maintains the utmost respect for his friend and former rival.
“He is by far and away the best competitive snowboarder in the sport right now, and that is very admirable to me. I am in total support of that, but I’m not in support of how he doesn’t include his friends in the things he does and has become more reclusive with how he runs his show, but I feel like it’s his decision to run his program how he wants and I took a much different approach to it,” Kevin said. “We did it differently, but his way is working for him, so I think that’s amazing.”
It was almost two years after Kevin’s accident before he got back on a board, and for some time he was convinced he could return to the heights of the sport he had reached before his injury, even mentioning how he had envisioned taking part in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. There was, however, a watershed moment that finally allowed him to come to terms with the effects of his injury.
“It really was right when I got back on the board and I got to the point where I realized my abilities and where my snowboarding was at that point... my brain wouldn’t allow me to understand where I was and what was possible for me,” he said.
With all the recent attention paid in sports to the devastating effects a traumatic brain injury can have, the filmmakers spend a section of the movie questioning whether the demands placed on top-level action sports athletes by sponsors and fans have gone too far. It’s a perspective that Kevin doesn’t necessarily agree with.
“What’s so cool about these sports is that they’re progressing and moving forward and pushing the limits of what’s possible, and I don’t see that moving backwards at all,” he said. “That’s what snowboarding is all about and it’s these athletes, not the sponsors, that are pushing to make these kids do double corks and triple corks. These kids want to be doing these tricks, and it’s not like there’s anybody out there making them do it except themselves.”
No one would blame Kevin for feeling some bitterness after suffering an injury that forced him to cut his promising career short. Even so, the 26-year-old refuses to feel sorry for himself and admits he has no regrets with how everything has played out.
“I wouldn’t change anything. I think that’s part of the sport I was playing in and the consequence that comes along with snowboarding,” he said. “If people are going to be able to watch this film and see what can happen, it’s going to be important for them to realize that this is the reality and these things do happen.”
The Crash Reel plays Dec. 8 at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the Rainbow Theatre as part of the film festival’s closing gala. Kevin will be in attendance, and tickets are $25.