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Perilous pursuit

Quest for next great move downs snowboarder

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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Kevin Pearce was talking about the double cork, a trick that would revolutionize snowboarding. He had learned the twisting double backflip in preparation for next month’s Vancouver Olympics. To be a medal contender, Pearce needed to push the envelope.

But when pressed to describe how he executed the daring, new - and extremely difficult - move several feet above the edge of a halfpipe, Pearce, in a November interview in Carlsbad, Calif., couldn’t find the right words. Instead, he called up cellphone video from a recent training session.

“That’s me,’’ said Pearce, pointing to a spinning, flipping, gravity-defying figure. The trick, he hoped, would win worldwide attention.

In a cruel twist, Pearce made headlines a week ago when he sustained a traumatic brain injury while attempting to land a double cork during a practice session in Park City, Utah. Pearce hit his head against the edge of the halfpipe. Despite wearing a helmet, he was knocked unconscious.

On Wednesday, Pearce was upgraded from critical to serious condition as doctors at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City removed his breathing tube. He is slowly regaining consciousness and is able to follow commands.

One of Pearce’s doctors, Holly Ledyard, said in a statement, “While we’re pleased that he’s improving faster than anticipated, he still has a long recovery ahead of him.’’

While top-ranked riders make the toughest tricks look easy, the risk of injury is always present. Snowboarders can launch themselves nearly 20 feet into the air from halfpipes constructed with purposely hard 15- to 23-foot walls. A typical competitive run consists of six tricks, featuring a dizzying array of flips, twists, and contortions.

Snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton has watched these athletes take greater risks and push the sport to new heights. Asked if he would describe snowboarding as dangerous, Burton said, “Yeah, for sure. To do a double cork 1080, clearly those riders, when they take off for a trick like that, there’s a giant leap of faith. It’s not easy to spot a landing. But the riders, they’ve got a self-preservation instinct like the rest of us, and they’re figuring it out. Kevin’s accident was incredibly unfortunate.

“These athletes are leading the way. And life is tricky on the edge, but that edge and that risk has been there forever. What we thought 10, 15 years ago was so sketchy has almost become the norm.’’

All in the name of fun
A couple of months ago, the 22-year-old Pearce, raised in Norwich, Vt., was talking about how far he had come - from a dyslexic kid who used sports to escape the frustration of school to one of the world’s best snowboarders. He spoke candidly about his passion for family, friends, and snowboarding.

“I’m not trying to look like a daredevil or anything out there snowboarding,’’ said Pearce. “I’m not trying to make it look so cool. I’m just trying to make it look like I’m out there having as much fun as anyone else could have. That’s kind of what [my friends and I] portray when we’re all snowboarding. No matter how serious it is or how mellow it is, it’s always us having a good time. My whole goal is to make people be like, ‘Wow, I want to go out and try that.’ ’’

But most people couldn’t copy what Pearce does on a snowboard. They don’t have his natural athleticism or his smooth, clean style or his special connection to the sport’s creative roots. Back in the day, his uncles rode with Burton, and a young Pearce joined the crowd. That connection helps explain Pearce’s purest sensibilities when it comes to snowboarding, and his recognition of the risks involved.

“The main draw for me was how much self-expression there is in snowboarding,’’ said Pearce. “The one thing I did hate about sports was the coaches. I like to do it my way. I don’t like people telling me how to do it. In snowboarding, you do whatever you want.’’

Discussing the difficulty of the newest tricks, he added, “You’ve got to be in peak condition, because if one thing goes wrong, it’s kind of the end of your season.’’

Pearce learned that lesson last June when practicing double cork variations at a private, Nike-built halfpipe at Mammoth Mountain in California. Joined by his elite snowboarding friends, Pearce expanded his catalogue of tricks before breaking his right ankle. Three weeks before the traumatic brain injury in Park City, Pearce sustained a concussion on a preliminary run at an Olympic qualifying event in Copper Mountain, Colo.

Pearce’s preseason workouts were geared toward giving the lean, 5-foot-10-inch snowboarder the agility, strength, and stamina to maintain proper mechanics during runs packed with twisting and flipping - the kind of runs Pearce knew he would need to defeat reigning Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, whom he had beaten in major international halfpipe competitions.

Downplaying any rivalry with White, Pearce said, “I think it’s cool to be able to see how we can take two totally different paths at snowboarding.’’

Coming out of Vermont high school ski academies - first Stratton Mountain, then Okemo - Pearce wasn’t sure whether he should attend college or focus on snowboarding. In 2006, success on the competitive snowboarding circuit made the decision easy. College could wait. Big wins followed. With the Olympics on the horizon, Pearce appeared to make all the right moves.

Despite his growing sports celebrity, Pearce kept his life simple and low-key, saving the showmanship for the halfpipe. After all, he owns a practical Audi wagon.

“People can see me being flashy when I’m snowboarding,’’ said Pearce. “That’s what I try to let speak for me the most, my riding. Hopefully, afterward, I don’t have to be this flashy kid, driving expensive cars or going out to clubs.

“It’s kind of just how I’ve been raised. That’s how it’s always been in my family, pretty mellow. My parents have kept me very grounded and a lot of that goes to my brothers, too. Growing up with them, being the youngest, they were putting me in my place if I did something wrong.’’

Close-knit family
Pearce’s parents, Simon and Pia, released a statement earlier this week thanking family, friends, and fans from around the world for their prayers and the doctors and nurses at the hospital for their continuing efforts. The statement concluded: “Kevin is the most extraordinary and determined son two parents could hope for and it is wonderful to see how loved he is.’’

Kevin grew up the youngest of four boys, in a family with tremendously trusting and patient parents. Simon and Pia converted a barn on their property into living quarters for Kevin and two of his brothers. With pool and ping-pong tables, TV room and attached skateboard ramp, the barn was a popular hangout.

But the Pearce brothers never took their freedom or good fortune for granted. Living in the barn, they stayed out of trouble and made it to the main house for dinner every night.

Sharing meals was only part of what made the Pearces a tight-knit clan. Kevin, his father, and two older brothers - Andrew and Adam - are dyslexic. His brother David has Down syndrome.

“My dad never once would open our report cards,’’ said Kevin. “It was never an issue. For him, it was ‘go and be the best you can.’ That kind of molded us into who we are. It enabled us to grow up and do the things that we do and be so successful. We had this freedom. They gave us this chance to go out and do it a different way than most kids.’’

Simon Pearce followed his own path and passion to success, starting the blown-glass and pottery company that bears his name. It’s an internationally respected brand, with stores on Newbury Street and throughout the Northeast. So it seemed logical that his youngest son could follow his own passion to success as well.

“The whole sports thing doesn’t really catch him, but I think he can have a great appreciation for how snowboarding is an art form,’’ said Kevin. “There’s kind of a cool connection there. I would love one day, when I have the time, to sit down with him and really learn glass blowing.’’

The Pearces, friends, and fans, are hoping that, and more, can happen someday.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.