Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Olympic hopeful snowboarder in hospital with brain injury

From John Branch in Reporter's Notebook in The New York Times:

Over breakfast in Copper Mountain, Colo., on Dec. 13, snowboarder Kevin Pearce (pictured) talked about the wicked crash in the halfpipe that shattered his ankle in June. It kept him off his snowboard until November.

“I have it right here on my phone,” he said, reaching into his pocket. The file was labeled “Kevin sprains ankle,” because that is what he initially thought he did.

The video clip showed Pearce, practicing with friends at a private halfpipe at California’s Mammoth Mountain, going up the left wall, spinning and coming down hard on the edge of the deck. Pearce looked like a rag doll as he tumbled to the bottom of the pipe and eventually slid to a stop, right at the feet of his brother Adam.

Pearce had watched the clip countless times. It did not seem to bother him.

“I haven’t really put it out, because I don’t want anybody else to see my fall,” he said with a shrug.

Doctors told Pearce that he nearly did enough damage to end his season and his Olympic dream, if not more. But this was December, the season of optimism, and as one of the few riders to have beaten the gold-medal favorite Shaun White in head-to-head competition the past two years, Pearce was clearly excited about his Olympic-team prospects.

After a more serious fall while training on Dec. 31, Pearce, 22, lies with a severe brain injury in critical condition in the intensive-care unit of a Salt Lake City hospital. Family and friends have gathered and kept the long-term prognosis quiet. A Facebook page is keeping vigil. Whether Pearce competes in the halfpipe again seems to be the least of anyone’s concerns.

The breakfast conversation, long since transcribed, remains in my recorder. It is hard to hit the “erase” button. Pearce’s voice was filled with hope and humility and love for his family. He called his father his idol. He called his mother his anchor. He spoke about each of his three older brothers — including David, who has Down syndrome — with mature admiration that belied his years.

A few days later, Simon and Pia Pearce and the oldest of their four boys, Andrew, 28, were in Manhattan at the Park Avenue store of Simon Pearce. Born in London and raised in Ireland, Simon Pearce, 63, is a well-known Vermont-based glass blower with a string of retail outlets, several factories and a couple of restaurants in the Northeast.

Many know Kevin Pearce. Many know Simon Pearce. Few link them together. I found it fascinating — a father and son, connected by their ability to create in utterly different disciplines, famous to vastly different audiences.

Yes, that was the story.

On Dec. 21, Pia Pearce cheerfully gave a tour of the family’s house in Norwich, Vt., and the house’s renovated barn, well known on the snowboarding circuit as the ultimate hangout — a skateboard ramp in back, a great room inside stocked with a pool table, foosball, air hockey, stereo, guitars, a refrigerator and couches.

One of the three bedrooms in the loft belongs to Kevin. The nightstand held a Simon Pearce glass lamp on top and a few high school yearbooks below. The window looked out to a snowy field.

We drove to the original Simon Pearce factory in nearby Quechee and met Simon for lunch at the facility’s restaurant, atop the half-frozen falls of the Ottauquechee River. After a tour, Simon Pearce led the way down winding roads to a second factory in Windsor. He gamely agreed to blow a glass.

The article I planned to write would coincide with this week’s halfpipe event at Mammoth Mountain, the second and third of five contests for the United States Olympic team. Pearce was considered a favorite.

It was written Thursday. A call to the Pearce house later that afternoon was intended to let them know and to double-check a couple of things.

Adam answered. He teaches snowboarding in Park City but was home for Christmas. Kevin had been home, too, but had already gone to Park City to train with other Olympic hopefuls.

It was Adam, 25, who really led Kevin into snowboarding.

“It was always Adam who was the one I wanted to be like,” Pearce said Dec. 13.

When Pia Pearce returned the call two hours later, her voice was fraught with worry. She had just learned that Kevin had been seriously hurt in Utah. She and Simon were headed there immediately.

Kevin Pearce was working on a version of the “double cork,” a twisting double back flip that is this season’s must-have trick. Elite riders are hurriedly perfecting the difficult, crowd-pleasing maneuver. Medal-winning runs at February’s Olympics are likely to include them.

Shaun White and Louie Vito used back-to-back double corks to finish first and second at the first Olympic qualifying event in Copper Mountain the day before Pearce sat down for the breakfast interview. Pearce was 18th in preliminaries and missed the 16-man finals, but he was upbeat. He was working on the double cork last spring before he got hurt, and felt that a few more weeks of practice would put him right in contention for one of four Olympic spots.

“I just need to get these new tricks dialed,” he said. “I’m very close.”

On Thursday in Utah, Pearce was working on his version of a double cork when he caught an edge and hit the icy pipe with his forehead. He was knocked unconscious, despite wearing a helmet, and airlifted to the hospital. On Saturday night, a doctor said that Pearce sustained “a severe traumatic brain injury” and was “intubated and being kept sedated.” His condition, as of Monday night, had not changed, a family spokeswoman said.

Pearce’s injury and recovery are sure to be a sobering backdrop to what was expected to be a raucous Olympic halfpipe competition. And it will raise questions about safety and the sanity of 22-foot walls of ice, and tricks with more spins and flips than ever imagined, even four years ago.

For one family, though, it is far more personal than any of that. It is an unfinished story that begs for a happy ending.