Back on Board: Kevin Pearce Snowboards for the First Time Since Brain Injury

Kevin Pearce got back on his snowboard two years after brain injury.

ByABC News
December 15, 2011, 1:38 PM

Dec. 16, 2011— -- Tuesday was no ordinary day down the mountain for champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce.

The 24-year-old twisted and turned on his board down a Breckenridge, Colo., slope for the first time since a terrible accident on a Utah halfpipe nearly two years ago left him with a traumatic brain injury and took away his Olympic dreams.

He fell into a coma after slamming his head while practicing a complex stunt, and it seemed doubtful as to whether he would ever return to the sport he mastered, since doctors weren't even sure he would ever walk again.

But he battled through two years of intensive rehabilitation he regained his ability to not only talk, walk and eat but to get back on the slopes.

"I can't even explain what I've been through," he said. "To really get away and get on snow is just so special and I never knew it would be like that. When I was doing it two years ago, I took it all for granted," Pearce told the Denver Post. At the time of this report, Pearce could not be reached by for comment.

"This was the ride of a lifetime," he said after his run down the mountain. "That was really nice. Felt so good."

Pearce never gave up on his dream to one day be back on his board, and his determination is one of the main reasons doctors said he was able to make what they say is a remarkable recovery.

"It's a huge testament to this young man's amazing courage and determination," said Dr. Ross Bullock, a professor of neurology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "It's even more amazing that he's able to return to snowboarding, since it requires so much balance and coordination."

Another factor in his favor is his youth, Bullock said.

"We see this more and more that even with severe injuries, young people seem to rehabilitate really well and get back on their feet," he said.

Older people, he explained, are more prone to different patterns of injury, such as bleeding inside the brain. In addition, older people tend to have a lot fewer brain cells, since people lose 5 percent of brain mass every decade after age 40.

Being an athlete helped, too, Bullock said. Exercise and physical activity, he explained, precondition the brain, which can be protective.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1.7 million Americans experience a TBI every year. The agency recently issued a report that found the number of kids who went to emergency rooms with concussions caused by sports and recreation rose 60 percent over the past decade.

The Brain Injury & Resources Guide website, created by the University of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said sports-related injuries are the second leading cause of traumatic brain injuries.

One of the biggest dangers athletes face when returning to sports after a TBI is second impact syndrome, or SIS.

"When there is a second impact, there's a synergistic effect of the two together," said Bullock. "When yoyu have a severe TBI, you lose a lot of brain cells and if you add another injury on top of that, the chances of getting back are reduced markedly."

That's a fact Pearce seems to know very well. He told the Valley News he was careful about deciding when to snowboard again.

"The waiting actually hasn't been hard at all, because I know what I've been through and I've heard so much about what could happen if I did take another fall. It would be so bad, I really, obviously, don't want to be put in that position," he said.

Pearce is also an advocate for rehabilitation from brain injuries, and he hopes his experience teaches people the lesson that so many people forget: Life is short.

"I really think my friends are starting to appreciate it more after being with me," he told the Denver Post. "They realize what they have and they aren't taking it for granted."