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Kevin Pearce
Jack Dempsey  /  AP
Snowboarder Kevin Pearce smiles as he works his way through the crowd before he hits the slopes for the first time, Tuesday in Breckenridge, Colo.
updated 12/14/2011 10:13:05 AM ET 2011-12-14T15:13:05

Basking in the sun and snow, surrounded by his fans and friends, Kevin Pearce carved sweet turns down a gentle run called "Springmeier" — kicking up just enough powder behind him to remind people that, yes, this kid can still ride.

The three trips he took down that hill, some might say, were a storybook ending to a life-altering journey that began when Pearce nearly died during a training accident while preparing for the Olympics.

Or was it a new beginning?

"That's kind of my goal," Pearce said. "To continue to have special days like this."

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Video: Snowboarder recovers from edge of death (on this page)

Ready to ride again
Yes, Tuesday was a special day — the 24-year-old champion snowboarder's first trip down the mountain since Dec. 31, 2009, which is when he banged his head on the halfpipe in Utah while trying a difficult trick that, had he pulled it off a few months after that, might have won him a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.

The accident left him in a coma and his life hung in the balance for several days. When he finally awoke, severe head trauma turned the most basic of activities — walking, talking, seeing straight — into pressing challenges for the young athlete.

In the back of his mind, though, as he labored through his grueling rehabilitation, Pearce never gave up hope that he might ride again — if not across a rail or through a halfpipe, then at least down a mountain.

Story: Snowboarder in near-fatal crash to ride again

On a sunsplashed afternoon in the Colorado high country, 712 days after the accident, he did.

The day began with a trip to Vail, where Pearce hooked up with snowboarding mogul Jake Burton and the close-knit group of pro snowboarders who call themselves the "Frends" (because there is no 'I' in friendship).

After a few mellow trips on that mountain, Pearce came to Breckenridge to ride with other friends, along with the public, a few hundred of whom cheered when he walked out of the lunchroom and toward the lift, ready to ride again.

"I didn't know if anyone was going to show up today," Pearce said. "When I walked out there and there were all these people there to support me and have my back the way they have for the last two years, it brings this feeling. It's a hard feeling to explain."

Kevin Pearce
Jack Dempsey  /  AP
Nearly two years after an accident on the halfpipe that nearly took his life, Pearce is doing what nobody could have predicted by riding again.

‘Ride with Kevin’
Instead of sporting the old "I Ride For Kevin" stickers that dotted every mountainside after the accident, those on the slopes with him on this day wore stickers and T-shirts with a new message: "Ride With Kevin."

The return to the snow wasn't without the most minor of falls, a very small tipping that came courtesy of a rider who bumped him on the hill. No damage done, though. Only smiles at the bottom, where two years of hard, emotional work — filled with hundreds of tiny steps forward and a fair share of tiny steps back, as well — culminated in a day that was never guaranteed.

"The doctors said to me, 'Don't take his hope away,'" said Pearce's mother, Pia. "And that's the message. It's about doing it, but doing it safely. It's about him making good choices. It's about him being a role model and a mentor for all those ... athletes who get concussions. To be smart about it. Enjoy life. Have fun. But when he needs to make a hard choice and not do something, as his life goes on, we need to see. Can he stop himself when he wants to take that jump?"

Video: Snowboarder: Helmet saved my life (on this page)

Indeed, the future holds many more questions for Pearce, who, to those who don't know him, seems as healthy and happy as any 20-something on the mountain.

Even he concedes everything is not all perfect.

"I don't think anyone in this room except my mom and my brother have any idea what's really going on with me right now," Pearce said, a few hours after the ride. "There's so much more than what you see."

But on this day, it wasn't so much about the road ahead as the celebration at hand. Out on the mountain in a bright blue jacket, Pearce was the star, even with dozens of world-class riders practicing nearby for the Dew Tour event that will take place on the same mountain later this week.

Pearce will be on hand for that, though he knows joining those guys at the top is not in his future.

"Jumps and halfpipes and rails and that stuff aren't important to me anymore," he said. "What's important to me is to be able to get up there and be happy with what I'm doing. Riding powder. Riding with all my friends. There are so many things you can do up on the mountain that don't involve competition. That stuff, that's the stuff I'm looking forward to the most."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Snowboarder: Helmet saved my life

  1. Transcript of: Snowboarder: Helmet saved my life

    LAUER: Kevin Pearce is here along with his mom, Pia . Good morning to both of you. It's great to see you.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Good morning.

    Ms. PEARCE: Good morning, Matt.

    LAUER: Normally I would start with you, but you know what, I'm going to talk to your mom first.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: It's a great idea.

    LAUER: You know because a few months ago this would not have seemed possible to be sitting here in this studio.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Right. Right.

    Ms. PEARCE: We are so grateful that Kevin has worked so hard to get better and I really believe that it's his own inner determination and he had it before when he was working so hard to get to the Olympics , and then when this happened to him he just hung onto that strength and here he is today.

    LAUER: The brain is an amazing thing when you really stop and think about it , not only because of physically what you have been able to do in terms of recovery but because of the fact you don't remember a thing about the accident.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Mm-hmm. That's for a reason I would imagine, right?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Yeah, I think it's a very good thing. I don't remember them cutting into my head twice and I don't remember anything for a month and a half. So it's pretty amazing that I don't remember a month of my -- a month and a half in my life and I can be sitting here now in such great shape, so.

    LAUER: I was -- I remember Tom Brokaw talked to you, went and visited you, and he was talking about the fact that you had spent so many years training to get to those Olympic Games and the irony of you watched those games in a rehabilitation hospital .

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Yeah.

    LAUER: What was that like for you?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Yeah, that was a pretty interesting time just because of how bad of shape I was in and watching the Olympics and just knowing that I could have been there and that was my dreams and I'd worked so hard to get there and it was really the only thing at that point when I was snowboarding that really mattered to me. So the fact that I was in such bad shape when that was going on was just...

    LAUER: Was it emotionally frustrating for you...

    Mr. K. PEARCE: It was.

    LAUER: ...to lie in that bed and say, 'I should be there, I should be watching tape of myself on TV ?'

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was very hard for me and that was one of the hardest things ever to watch on TV .

    LAUER: Balance, balance has been an issue and eyesight.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Yeah.

    LAUER: I know Tom talked about the fact you were still having trouble with your eyesight. Where does that stand?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Yeah, I still have trouble with my eyesight. Your eyes are actually a muscle so we do a lot of eye exercise to try to get them better and stuff like that. But along with my vision and balance, my reaction time is also a bit slow now so I need to work on that to try and get my license back, so.

    LAUER: So you can drive again.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Exactly.

    LAUER: And that's a major hurdle. Let's talk about family, OK, because there's the physical side of this, Pia , and then there is the emotional side that we've come to know. I don't know -- I'm sure that a lot of families would have pulled together the way your family did. Your other three sons all sacrificed and chipped in and got together for Kevin . But what did you learn about your family based on this?

    Ms. PEARCE: I think it just really reinforced for me, Matt , how important family can be, how powerful the love of a family is. And I think pulling together for us was something that wasn't -- it wasn't hard because we would just do that, you know, if it happened to anybody. If something happened to me I feel like everybody in the family would be there for me in the same way. But I think it was just striking how powerful and how much of a difference it really makes.

    LAUER: And, Kevin , what did it mean to your recovery? I mean, how much was the emotional side of things? How much did it play a role in the actual recovery?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Oh, I think it played the biggest role ever in my recovery. The amount of stuff they did and having everybody there. They were there by my side for the entire time. And it was a long time. What do you think it was, seven months?

    Ms. PEARCE: Well, it's -- we're about going on almost eight months now, yeah.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: And they've been with me the whole time. So it was just beyond amazing having them. And the food in the hospital wasn't the best. And they brought -- they brought me food every day.

    LAUER: Home cooking, which is nice.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Exactly.

    LAUER: We love that.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: So that was just so special. And everything they did for me was just beyond belief, how amazing they have been.

    LAUER: Everybody wants to know are you going to board again and to what level? And mom is smiling. And I would imagine mom gets a say in this. You know, are...

    Mr. K. PEARCE: No say.

    LAUER: No? Are you going to get back on the snowboard?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Oh, yes.

    LAUER: Yeah?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: I'm very lucky and excited that I am able to get back on a snowboard just because of the shape I was in seven months ago, and you saw from that photo...

    LAUER: Right.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: ...that I was practically dead. And the fact that I am going to be able to do that and -- I mean, she's going to let me.

    LAUER: Mom, how are you going to feel about that?

    Ms. PEARCE: What's mom going to do?

    LAUER: How you going to feel about that because the doctors have given you the the word -- the "what if" if something like that were to happen again.

    Ms. PEARCE: Yeah, right.

    LAUER: How do you feel about him getting back on the board?

    Ms. PEARCE: Yeah, he can't -- he can't do it again. So I've had anxiety before and I guess I'll have probably some anxiety again. But I feel like it's Kevin 's life and he needs to be able to make his own choices and we're here to support him.

    LAUER: We know what that choice is going to be. Kevin , doing great.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Thanks, Matt.

    LAUER: Keep in touch, all right?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Appreciate it.

    LAUER: Let us know how things are going.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Awesome.

    LAUER: Pia , thank...

    Ms. PEARCE: Here, you got something for Matt ?

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Oh, yes. And there's been an amazing amount of support and especially by these companies just have helped me so much. So by all my fans, too.

    LAUER: Thank you.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: And I would just like to...

    LAUER: And, by the way, wear helmets, to the young people out there.

    Ms. PEARCE: Exactly.

    LAUER: Wear a helmet. So important.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: That's the only thing that really matters or else I'd be dead. So...

    LAUER: Kevin and Pia , thank you so much . Good luck.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Thanks.

    LAUER: We're back right after this.

    Mr. K. PEARCE: Of course. Thanks for the shirt, by the way. Appreciate it.


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