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Kevin Pearce rides again, thanks to family

LUDLOW, VT. – The first time I met Kevin Pearce he was flying high. It was the run-up to the Vancouver Olympics and this young kid from Vermont was poised to take the podium on snowboarding's half pipe for the U.S. Olympic team.

He was a good looking, quiet young man who seemed to have his head screwed on straight. One of the most memorable things he told me was that his strong family bonds helped him keep his feet on the ground in spite of all the publicity and promotion that comes with being a world-class athlete.

Then things went terribly wrong.

During a training run on Dec. 31, 2009 in Park City, Utah Kevin missed a new maneuver called the “Double Cork” – he slammed his head into the side of the icy course and was left in critical condition. The impact was so severe he even cracked his helmet.

Suffering from traumatic brain injury, doctors placed Kevin in a medically induced coma so his brain could heal. After about a month in critical care, he was moved to Craig Hospital in Denver, a world renowned rehabilitation center that specializes in treating traumatic brain injuries. He suffered severe memory loss, impaired vision and had to learn to walk again.
Today Kevin, 24 years old, says he doesn't remember anything about the accident.

"From what I hear, I never will remember what happened that day; and that's alright with me," he said during a recent interview back home in Vermont. “I don't think my brain lets me remember it because it doesn't want to remember it.”

But Kevin has always been a determined young man. From day one, he focused all his resources on recovery. And his family was there by his side every step of the way. 

Kevin Pearce and his parents on how happy they are with Kevin's recovery. 

"What he's done in the last two years, I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't be inspired by it,” said his father, Simon Pearce, a noted Irish-American glass artist and entrepreneur. "It's pretty easy to support somebody who is really positive and upbeat and determined.”

Kevin’s three older brothers, Andrew, Adam, and David, who has Down syndrome, have also been vital to his recovery.

David, who used to be his workout partner before the accident, has been by his side throughout his recovery. “It's been so special for me to be with David and get to learn from David. I feel like I used to teach him so much and after this injury he's been there and teaching me so much,” Kevin said.

Adam – who is also a snowboarder – even quit his job after Kevin’s accident, not only to help with his rehabilitation in Denver, but to make sure it was “fun and enjoyable.”  

Kevin’s mom, Pia Pearce, said the support of his brothers is a testament to the strength of family.

“They really rallied I think to support Kevin in an amazing way, but I think Kevin would do it for his brothers, too,” said Pia. “That's exactly what feels important to us as parents.”

For Kevin, it’s “indescribable” how important his family has been in helping him recover. 

“They've kind of been there behind me for this entire time. No one's ever kind of left me on my own,” he said. 

The Pearces invited NBC to meet up with Kevin two years after his accident, for a reunion of sorts at Okemo Mountain in Vermont earlier this week. Kevin was going to strap on his board and head down the slopes alongside the rest of his family.

(However, this wasn’t his first time back on the slopes since the accident; that happened to the cheers of friends and fans in Breckenridge, Colo. just last month on Dec. 13).

Needless to say, he ripped it.  (See the video above).

Did he ever worry that he would never board again?

"No," he said. “I knew the whole time I was in the hospital. That was the main focus; to get back up here and riding again."

See Kevin Tibbles report on Kevin Pearce after his accident during the the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games on Feb.15, 2010.

He knows the dangers of snowboarding and acknowledges that he will probably never compete on the Olympic level again.  “Snowboarding is at this level, it's kind of gone to a crazy place, and I don't think I can get back to it in a safe enough way to make it worth it… It's just not really a possibility or an option to hit my head again.”

For the meantime, he is just happy to be on the road to recovery.

“After seeing what kind of condition… I could be in after such a traumatic injury, to be here doing so well and just having such a good time and loving life so much,” he said. “I feel so lucky.”

Related links:
PhotoBlog: Snowboarder Kevin Pearce hits the slopes two years after devastating accident

Olympic dreams lost, but Pearce stays strong