It was New Year’s Eve 2009, less than two months before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce was focused on getting to the top of the podium. Based on some recent big wins, it looked as if Pearce could beat his former friend Shaun White, with whom he’d had an escalating rivalry. He was training at a built-for-him private halfpipe in Park City, Utah, with his posse of friends, nicknamed the FRENDS (spelled purposely without an “I”), when Pearce tried to execute the cab double cork he’d been trying to perfect.
Pearce landed on his head, hitting just above his left eye, and was knocked out. A passerby happened to catch the accident on film.
Blood leaked from his nose and mouth. His friends watched in horror, rushing down to him at the bottom of the halfpipe, where they begged him to “stay with us, Kev” as they waited first for ski patrol to arrive, and then the flight-for-life helicopter. Pearce’s tight-knit family rushed to his side at the hospital and stayed there for months, first in the intensive care unit as he fought initially just to survive, then later, at Craig Hospital in Denver, as he re-learned how to talk and walk and face life as a traumatic brain injury survivor.
It’s all part of Lucy Walker’s documentary about Pearce, “The Crash Reel,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah a year ago this month.
While his parents saw the film in a private screening before the debut, Pearce saw the film for the first time at the festival with a full audience. What makes the film so utterly engrossing is its stark honesty, a trait that Pearce radiates.
“I didn’t like it the first time I saw it,” Pearce said during a phone interview from his home in Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this week. “It was too much for me to take. Even a year ago, I was not ready or prepared to take in all that information. It’s all me, all my family, all of my doctors and all of my friends. It’s so much stuff; I just don’t think my brain was able to process it all. But I’ve watched it many, many more times since then, and I think it’s incredible.
“It’s no bullshit, what you see is what it was; it’s an honest showing of what it’s been like,” Pearce said.
‘What it’s really like’
The film screens at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek on Tuesday evening. Pearce will be on hand for a question-and-answer session after the showing.
Kim Greene, the Vail Valley Medical Center ThinkFirst program coordinator, saw “The Crash Reel” last summer in Denver. The ThinkFirst program gives out helmets to kids in Eagle County.
Greene’s son, Jeremy, now age 30, was in a car accident at age 16 in Summit County and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He spent months at Craig Hospital in Denver and even had some of the same doctors as Pearce.
“To me, the movie was identical to what we went through,” she said. “I’ve never seen that portrayed on any kind of documentary or TV show, the reality of it and what it’s really like for people.”
Greene immediately wanted to show the film locally, she said.
“Everybody needs to see this,” she said. “We’ve had some tragic events in our community. For some, it’s just all about the thrill. That movie shows how it affects the whole family.
‘The story wasn’t over’
When documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker first met Pearce, a year after his accident, his eyes still looked in different directions. His short-term memory was non-existent. She was struck by his tragic story and charmed by his personality, but she didn’t immediately want to make a film about it.
“I didn’t want to make a two-act film about a hopeful who had crashed,” Walker writes on thecrashreel.com. “Or a sappy rehab story that didn’t really earn its keep. But then I started to notice that Kevin was desperate to keep up with the other athletes around him. His brother told me that if he hit his head again he would die, and that he wasn’t allowed to snowboard again, but everything he wanted to do was active and dangerous, and he lit up when he talked about his passion to return to the sport.
“I wondered what he would do next, and I realized that the story wasn’t over, it was about to get interesting. … Kevin’s life was snowboarding, but it would kill him if he returned to it,” she continued.
While Walker didn’t know what was going to happen next, she “wanted to film him to find out.”
And so, Walker and her fellow filmmakers turned on the camera and pointed it at Pearce and his family for the next two-and-a-half years. She also began compiling the massive amounts of film footage that existed of Pearce, from his parent’s home videos of him as a baby, to his early days learning to snowboard with his three brothers, to his rise on the snowboarding circuit, his eventual crash in the halfpipe and even footage of very early post-accident hospital scenes and subsequent recovery.
“In what I am guessing might be a record, we looked through 18 terrabytes of material comprising 11,000 clips from 232 archival sources,” Walker said. “We wanted to track down every last piece of footage that was needed to tell the story.”
Though Pearce admits that not being able to compete is something he has to come to terms with every single day, he does not feel defeated and he is enjoying being back on snow. He snowboarded with his friends in Utah earlier this month, and he’s headed to Sochi, Russia, for the Olympics next month, where he’ll be carrying the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies.
Pearce is a sports ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society, crediting his older brother David, who was born with Down syndrome, as a huge influence in his life and career. He is also an advocate for education and research on traumatic brain injuries and their prevention, highlighting the importance of wearing a helmet.
“I feel like there’s a much bigger opportunity to make a difference, for me to teach people,” he said. “Before I could show people what was possible on a snowboard, which was way fun for me, but it wasn’t like I was doing a whole lot for other people. You learn how much suffering there is in the world and how much people are going through, and to help those people is very powerful.”
He hopes the takeaway from the film is this:
“Most importantly, if you get knocked down, you have to get back up and keep fighting,” he said. “No matter how far you fall, you can come back, because I was down pretty low for quite some time, and I’m still coming back. Four years later, I’m still fighting to get better. … I’ve come to accept that I have to continue to keep getting better and that there’s this new life that I’m living.”