BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — 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."
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."
‘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.