Six weeks before the Vancouver Olympics, snowboarder Kevin Pearce stood as the biggest obstacle to Shaun White's winning back-to-back golds. But a training accident on New Year's Eve 2009, in Park City, Utah, left Pearce in a coma that would end his career and impair his brain function. Since then Pearce, 25, has regained his life, but he will never fully recover.
Usually, only family members and friends experience the travails following a traumatic brain injury. But that will change this Friday in Salt Lake City, when a powerful documentary on Pearce, The Crash Reel, premieres during the opening night gala of the Sundance Film Festival.
The movie, produced by HBO and directed by two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker, includes the first public look at footage of the crash and its immediate aftermath. Walker also dips back into Pearce and White's parallel careers, their fractured friendship, the party two nights before the accident and ensuing visits with doctors and psychologists, as well as Pearce's encounters with other young athletes who have suffered a similar fate.
Walker first heard of Pearce a month after the accident, at the 2010 Sundance festival. While showing two other films, Waste Land and Countdown to Zero, she noticed many in attendance wearing I RIDE FOR KEVIN stickers. The British director says that when she finally met Kevin and his brother Adam that summer at a Nike conference in Sandpoint, Idaho, "I was transfixed." And it was Adam, 28, who had the key footage, including Kevin's first days in the hospital.
"Adam was a tremendous cameraman," Walker said, as were many others shooting on everything from 35-millimeter cameras to Go Pros. "Two-hundred-twenty people around the world had a piece of this jigsaw puzzle. We scoured the planet like Sherlock Holmes on steroids looking for bits."
The Pearce family also proved to be remarkable messengers. Kevin is acutely aware of how the brain injury is changing him and is unafraid to express its emotional toll. Adam quit his job to be at Kevin's side during recovery. Another brother, David, a Special Olympic medalist who has Down syndrome, plays a vital and eloquent role. As do Pearce's mother, Pia, and father, the world-renowned glass blower Simon Pearce.
On Jan. 23 in Aspen, Colo., there will be a special screening of The Crash Reel for another part of Kevin's family: the X Games community. (Kevin was a three-time medalist.) "My hope," says Pia, "is that people get a much deeper understanding of how much power there is within friends and family to really influence the recovery. We've all pulled together in such an incredible way."