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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Film Traces Recovery Of Injured Snowboard Champion

In 2009, Kevin Pearce, then a champion snowboarder, suffered a near-fatal brain injury in a training accident.

His family rushed from their home in Hartland to his hospital bed in Utah. Amazingly, Pearce emerged from his coma and began the long road to recovery.

His father, glass artist Simon Pearce, his mother Pia, and three brothers formed an enduring support group. A new HBO film, “The Crash Reel,” tells the family’s story. It previews June 22 at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth.

“The Crash Reel” is not really about snowboarding—at least, not after the horrifying accident that occurs during the first few minutes of the film.  Kevin Pearce says  it’s about how a family pulls together after an unthinkable tragedy.

“I feel like because of what I’ve been taught and what my parents preached to me is hugely why I’m doing so well, but along with that I listened to them and I agreed and complied with what they told me, so it’s not like I rebelled and fought back from it,” Pearce says.

Yes, Pearce is doing well now. But the decision to leave a sport that would likely have taken him to the Olympics does spark some family tension—especially around the dinner table. The star of this scene, arguably, is Pearce’s brother David, who has Down Syndrome. When Kevin decides to go back to  competitive snowboarding despite his damaged brain, David looks him in the eye.  “I don’t want you to die,” he says. And then David asks “Is that what you want?”

“It’s not what I want, I think those are things I could have happen if I fall,” his brother answers.

Yet a stubborn Kevin insists at that dinner  that he will compete again. It’s a tough moment for any parent to handle—much less share with the world. Much of the footage was shot by friends and family, to show Kevin the agonizing yet thrilling steps in his recovery—and now those private moments are public. Kevin’s mother, Pia Pearce, says she hopes they will help other parents to trust their children, manage risk, and cope with unexpected challenges.

“And I think both David and Kevin, in the film, show how they deal with that struggle and challenge and I hope people we see how have tried to support and help them through that,” their mother said.

In the film, after grueling physical therapy, Kevin Pearce eventually tries his board on a fairly easy slope. That’s when he  finally accepts his physical limitations.  So he sets new goals—to be a sports commentator and to speak publicly about brain injury.

“Might sound a little clichéd but anything is possible, you know,  no matter where you are and how far down far down you go you really can come back with anything you are faced with,” Pearce said.

Especially, Pearce says, if your family dishes out plenty of tough love, and you are willing to watch on screen scary scenes from a past you could not otherwise have remembered. The family plans to start a charitable foundation to help others affected by traumatic brain injury, Down Syndrome, and other challenges.

“The Crash Reel.” directed by Lucy Walker, has already garnered praise at the Sundance Festival and will air on HBO on July 15. The special showing at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College on June 22 will be followed by a discussion with Kevin and Pia Pearce.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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