No one was sure what to expect—least of all Kevin Pearce himself. But two years after suffering a traumatic brain injury on a halfpipe training run in Park City, Utah, the 24-year-old snowboarder decided he was again ready to take a ride down the mountain.
Until that afternoon in December 2009, Pearce was a medal contender for the '10 Vancouver Olympics. In the aftermath of his accident, in which he hit his head on the edge of a halfpipe, it wasn't clear, however, whether he would again be able to walk or speak, let alone snowboard. "I've had to relearn everything from ground zero," he says. But on Dec. 13 at Breckenridge in Colorado, Pearce—accompanied by several hundred well-wishers—went snowboarding for the first time since his accident. "I was hoping it would be like [riding a bike]," he said the next day. "But I didn't really know how it [would] go."
It all came back to him. In fact, Pearce was so concerned about going too slow that he left many of his friends in his wake. Surely, his doctors would not have approved. "That's O.K.," he says. "I've been doing everything they tell me for two years."
And in those two years he's come a breathtaking distance. "I'm nowhere near done," he adds, however. "To be back to this place is really cool, but even if I look and act normal, I'm not all the way back yet."
While his days of doing off-axis flips are probably over, Pearce is forging a new relationship with his old sport. "Being in the backcountry—it's the essence of snowboarding," he says. "And I didn't do much of that before because I was so focused on competitions."
"In the end, that's what it's all about," says Pearce's close friend Luke Mitrani, another rising star in the sport. "It's not about being stressed out and trying to do tricks in the halfpipe. It's about getting out on the mountain with your friends."