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An athlete’s greatest challenge

Snowboarder Pearce works way back from brain injury

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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HARTLAND, Vt. — Kevin Pearce rocks side to side on what looks like a skateboard perched precariously atop a rolling pin. After settling into a comfortable rhythm, he goes through vision exercises. He offers a running commentary and makes the balancing act seem effortless.

“Muscle memory,’’ he explained, as his shoulder-length, reddish-brown hair flopped over his black-rimmed glasses.

For now, the balance board is as close as Pearce will come to snowboarding, the extreme sport in which risky, high-flying tricks placed him among the world’s best and propelled him to international fame. He was expected to contend for gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics before disaster struck during a training run on Dec. 31, 2009.

Attempting to land a double cork — a twisting double backflip that is one of the most difficult snowboarding tricks — Pearce smashed the right side of his head against the icy-hard edge of a halfpipe. Despite wearing a helmet, he was knocked unconscious and airlifted to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City in critical condition with a severe traumatic brain injury.

For a week, it was uncertain whether Pearce would survive. In the months that followed, he relearned how to walk, communicate, and care for himself.

Today, Pearce, 23, continues to strengthen his mind and body through balance board work, vision exercises, Pilates, and more traditional rehabilitation, regaining much of what he lost.

“Wouldn’t you say I act kind of normal and I look kind of normal?’’ said Pearce. “Well, not everything’s normal. That’s another hard thing about this brain injury. If I had a messed up voice, which a lot of people have, or if I had problems walking, people would really be like, ‘Oh, he had a brain injury.’ You can’t tell with me. But I had a brain injury. Trust me.’’

Pearce pointed out the less-apparent lingering effects of his injury — the weakness on his left side, sometimes slow thought processing, extremely distorted vision in his right eye, memory issues, mid-afternoon fatigue. Much to the relief of family and friends, however, his warm, fun-loving personality remains much the same. As a result of the injury, some traits are more pronounced, making Pearce more extroverted, more gregarious than before.

In recent weeks, Pearce has regained his driver’s license and done on-air commentary for ESPN’s Winter X Games. When talking about familiar subjects such as ` snowboarding, Pearce sounds most like his old self. New environments and unfamiliar situations challenge his higher-level thought processing.

His next big challenge and milestone will be a move Saturday back to San Diego, where he purchased a home shortly before his injury. He has been cleared to surf, but not snowboard.

Since the brain recovers the bulk of its abilities in the two years after a traumatic injury, yet remains most vulnerable during the same time period, Pearce will not be allowed back on snow until at least next January. Another hit to the head, even one that is mild, could halt his progress or dramatically set him back. And when he returns to the sport he loves and once devoted his life to, Pearce knows his days as a competitive snowboarder are over.

“I’ve come to terms with that,’’ said Pearce. “We’ve been saying for so long that ‘if you’re not first, you’re last.’ I still feel that way. If I’m not going to win a contest, if I don’t have the tricks it’s going to take to win, then there’s no interest in me doing it. I’ll never have those tricks back again and I’m all right with that.’’

Vital network Pearce is adjusting to what his primary neuro-rehabilitation physician, Dr. Alan Weintraub, calls his “new normal.’’ For the past 10 months, Pearce has lived with his parents in Vermont, going through as many as three therapy sessions a day and gradually regaining his independence. Speeding along familiar rural roads on the drive from a private Pilates class to lunch at home, Pearce clearly enjoys his hard-won freedom.

At lunch, it’s equally clear he appreciates the constant support provided by his family. Hugs are commonplace around the kitchen table.

Since his parents arrived at the hospital in Utah hours after the injury, at least one member of Pearce’s immediate family — parents Pia and Simon, older brothers Andrew, Adam, and David — has been with the injured snowboarder. Pia and Simon Pearce, a prominent glass blower with retail outlets throughout the Northeast, know the family was fortunate to have the flexibility and financial resources to help Kevin. Exceptionally close before the injury, the family was brought even closer by Kevin’s recovery and rehabilitation. “I’ve worked hard, but they’ve worked harder,’’ said Kevin. “They got me to where I am now. I never felt like I was working hard enough. I always felt like there was more I could do. That’s why I think I’m doing as good as I am. But I don’t feel like there’s anything more they can do. They’ve maxed out on their amount of love and support.’’

In a living room turned therapy room with all the furniture pushed to one side, Pia supervises Kevin’s balance board work and vision exercises. She has become something of an expert on brain injury recovery.

“The most important thing is he shouldn’t put too much pressure on himself to always feel he should be doing more,’’ said Pia. “It’s been the most monumental effort to come back from this injury because it was so severe. He’s worked so hard and he’s come so far.’’

When Pia and Simon first saw Kevin after the injury, he was connected to a combination of 23 wires and tubes, including two draining fluid from his brain. It was several days before he awoke from a medically induced coma. Shortly thereafter, he squeezed his father’s hand in vague recognition. It was a month before he stabilized enough for transport to Denver’s Craig Hospital for intense inpatient rehabilitation.

“You don’t really turn a corner,’’ said Simon. “You don’t come out of the woods. The woods just slowly get less thick. It’s a very gradual process.’’

Now the woods are considerably less thick than when Pearce arrived at Craig Hospital in early February 2010. At the time, he was in a wheelchair, dependent on others for all daily care, and “in a state of severe confusion,’’ said Weintraub.

For three months, Kevin went through eight hours of rehabilitation every day, all therapy sessions with older brother Adam at his side. With the exception of seizures last May that caused just his left arm to shake, he has not suffered any setbacks since leaving the hospital.

Back home, his older brother David is an invaluable teacher, reminding Kevin to be patient as recovery continues. David, who has Down syndrome, provides Kevin with perspective on handling life’s challenges and reminds him “to take things slow at times.’’

No letup Pearce is still the same determined athlete who insists on pushing himself physically and repeating exercises until they are done correctly.

During one-on-one Pilates instruction, he hops onto unstable surfaces. He does lunges with his eyes closed. He steps up and down on a boxlike apparatus until, he says, it feels as if his legs might fall off.

Throughout the class, Pearce doesn’t hesitate to ask for help when he struggles. He makes light of difficulties keeping his 5-foot-10-inch frame upright or following instructions mid-exercise.

“Did you know I had a brain injury?’’ he asks.

Or, pointing to his head, he says, “This processing system still isn’t that good.’’

Pearce’s sense of humor — sometimes dark, sometimes silly, sometimes centered on private family jokes — has helped him and his family throughout the recovery process.

“Almost as soon as he could open his eyes or do anything, he had humor,’’ said Simon Pearce. “The doctors say it’s a huge advantage to your recovery, to have some humor to not go to too dark a place.’’

Kevin added: “It’s obviously been really hard and depressing at times, but we’ve always made the best out of such a terrible situation.’’

Pearce’s memories of his early recovery are foggy at best. Yet he remembers it felt strange watching the Vancouver Olympics from his bed at Craig Hospital, seeing friends and friendly rivals compete. Looking back, Pearce believes he may have pushed himself too hard to qualify for the Olympics, attempting the doomed double cork three weeks after suffering a concussion in competition.

But he doesn’t like to look back. There is, he says, no point feeling sorry for himself. “So, why not look at the bright side and be thankful for what has happened and how lucky I am.’’

In the ultimate testament to his remarkable recovery, Pearce said of his future, “It’s wide open.’’

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