After suffering a traumatic brain injury, former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce shares the story of his journey to recovery and the many ways he was able to transform his hardship into a large opportunity.
When did you begin snowboarding and how did you transition into professional sports?
I have 3 older brothers. David, who is just older than me was skiing and my two oldest brothers, Andrew and Adam, were both snowboarding. I also have a bunch of uncles who were all snowboarding. Actually one of my uncles had produced the first snowboarding video—a video called One Track Mind—and so I was there from the very beginning. My family (in general) was very involved in the whole snowboarding scene and all of that and so it (seemed) only kind of right to fall into their footsteps.
I hated school. I was awful at it. I’m very dyslexic and there was nothing I hated more than sitting in a classroom and listening to someone lecture me and tell me what to do.
To have the flexibility to go outside and play in the mountains and in nature was a dream of mine, and it kind of felt like that for a long time while I was growing up. On the weekends and after school I would go up to the mountains and ride. I’d get to hang out with my brothers and copy them and slowly get better. It was a very gradual process where I started getting good. Then, Adam went away to this snowboard school and when I got older, I went to the same school. How it worked was that you got to snowboard from 8 until about noon and then you went to class from 1 to 5 everyday. That was my winter because I’d just be snowboarding every single day. And because I got to ride so much, I started to get good at it. It was junior year when I started competing and doing well, though I competed at a much younger age before. It was then when it kind of felt like something that I could turn into a career rather than an after school activity.
So it became more of your life?
When I started making money and doing well in events I was like “Okay, this is something that I could really do” you know? It’s always when you come to the end of high school when you start talking about your career and what you’re going do with your life and where you’re going to go and what college you’re going to and what’s next and for me what’s next was snowboarding and I wouldn’t have to go to college.
Not having that option of doing something other than college is a reality for most kids.. Most kids love school and have so much fun while they’re in school but I hated school. I just have such bad memories of high school and not because it was a bad high school, I went to an amazing high school, actually—it was because I didn’t understand what teaching meant and what my teachers were saying to me.
Now, I’ll go to a library or pass something and see these kids or my cousins studying and it will just bring back the worst memories for me, when they loved it. I guess what that did was just kind of bring a light to how different we are. . I got nothing out of school, for me it was all about being outside and being in the mountains—I was so into that.
So you were so happy to find a different passion that you could really invest your time in?
Yeah, exactly! It was just a different route. I always wanted to be different in school, I always wanted to be the kid that wasn’t a follower and wasn’t doing what everyone else was doing. So when I found out I could be a snowboarder, something that so few kids were doing at the time, I was like this is different and this is cool. Then it was like I was the cool kid who was doing something different than everyone else.
Tell me about the crash and the recovery.
It was interesting, that whole stage in my life where I went through high school and then out of high school. For a long time I was good at snowboarding but I was never great. I was good enough to have sponsors and make some money but I was never anything special. Then in 2009 something clicked for me. I got really good and started doing really well in competitions. I won 7 competitions around the world and became the ticket to ride snowboard world tour champion. Then the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics were coming up, and it was my goal to get to the Olympics after doing so well that previous year. My mind was set and so in the process of trying to make it to the Olympics, I needed to continue to improve as the sport evolved and progressed. I needed to continue moving forward so I decided I needed to learn these new tricks called double corks.
I had done a lot of practice on the double corks. I had a half pipe that was built for me in Mammoth, California by Nike. Me and my friends went up there constantly and we learned these double corks. I hadn’t perfected them in Mammoth, and was still kind of working on them when I went to Park City. It was right before the second Olympic qualifies (there are 4 qualifiers in snowboarding and they take your top two results of those 5) and I had to do really well. So I was in Park City trying to perfect some tricks and I went up that morning to work on my cab double cork. Long story short, I went up and tried to do the trick that I hadn’t done enough to perfect andended up not rotating around enough and caught my front edge and slammed to the bottom of the half pipe, landing on my head.
Wow, so at that moment what was it like for you?
I don’t remember. I have no memory of that morning, the morning of December 30th, 2009. I have no memory of the previous day or even the previous two days, and then the following month and a half. I don’t remember a single thing.
So what was it like transitioning from being an Olympic snowboarder to being the founder of love your brain?
The shift in my life has been crazy. I was so set on this path were I knew what I was going to do and where my life was heading and what I was all about. I was so nailed down to the idea that I was going to be a snowboarder and then in the blink o an eye, it was all completely taken away from me. I’ve had to totally shift my focus in life to where I am and what I’m doing now.
Was the transition hard?
Yeah, it’s been a hard transition to go from something I was so good at to something unknown. I’ve had to learn and figure out how all this works while I had already figured out how snowboarding worked. It was kind of like relearning and starting all over again, which is difficult but really fun at the same time. I think it’s a really cool process and I’m so lucky that I’ve found something that has been so great and so meaningful to me in the way that I can help so many kids in the world have a better life.
Tell me did Love Your Brain originate?
After I got out of the critical care and rehab I was seeing a doctor out in southern California, where I was living, and he helped me to recover. In the process of trying to heal my brain further he told me that the most important thing I could do was love my brain. I don’t know what people think when they hear “love your brain” but the truth is that you should treat your brain like anything you love in life. I don’t have a wife but I know that my dad loves his wife and that you love your girlfriend and you love your pets and all these things in life but it’s the same thing with your brain. You need to love your brain and you need to care, stop, and do.
I like to emphasize to kids that our brains are the most important thing we have and that we need to stop doing things that are bad our brains and instead do everything that’s good . There are so many levels to caring, stopping, and doing that’s possible and through this foundation we have really figured out how it should be done. The three things we have come up with that are working well are; mindfulness, movement, and community. Those are the three things we focus on. Being mindful through yoga and meditation, engaging in movement through going outside and exercising, and having a sense of community by bringing these people who have gone through similar situations together. It’s really been cool to try to bring this community and this group together because brain injuries are happening so often. Every 22 seconds someone gets a brain injury.
How does the foundation directly impact people with brain injuries or disabilities or any other challenge?
We have a retreat that we currently run in Vermont and that we’re going to run out on the west coat where we bring a group of about 50 brain injury survivors and different people that have different sources of brain injuries together and have a week long camp. There we have yoga, meditation, healthy foods, exercise, hiking, and the Burlington marathon to promote exercise in a fun and exciting way because of how good and important it is for everyone. So far we’ve found that the effects of the retreat have been really powerful.
We also have the Love Your Brain yoga program that we’ve launched where we provide affordable access for anyone that has suffered a brain injury. That has been incredible just because of the healing power that yoga has and what is had done for me in the ay that it completely changed my brain.
Then we have an educational curriculum that we’re coming up with that is going to show kids, through a movie, how they can continue to go out there and do what they love while being safe and smart by putting a helmet on and practicing things the right ways and making sure that if they do hit their head, the take enough time off before getting back to their sport.
Overall there’s been a bunch of different things in the works for the foundation’s growth.
You’re the sports ambassador for the national Down syndrome society, correct?
Yeah. My brother Dave has Down syndrome and I’ve always been super involved with everything that he’s done and has going on. He was always a skier and he’s super down to get out there and be active, and so to support him and to be apart of his community and his world alone by hanging out and helping kids with Down syndrome in order to understand how they could come to accept their disabilities and understand what they have going on has been really special to me. I’m such a huge part of his life and seeing what’s happening to him has been super cool. He has helped me learn to live with my brain injury and in turn I am helping him live with Down syndrome and all the limitations it comes with. It has been super amazing, this dynamic we have together.
How is being a sports ambassador different from other sports experiences in your life?
Working with kids with Down syndrome is very different because they go about life in a much different way then someone who doesn’t have disability or isn’t special needs. It’s been cool working with those guys and just trying to see how they’re doing and where they’re at. It’s been pretty rewarding to help further them to get better at whatever their working on be a part of their world.
What do you get out of it (being a sports ambassador)? What makes it so important to you?
I see what it does for Dave and I see how it can impact him and change his life and how much joy and fun excitement he could get out of having me out there with him. It’s just so cool and rewarding to be able give back to him and to help him in life after all he’s done for me.
Lastly, what do you think are long term goals for Love Your Brain?
My long-term goal is to prevent others from going through what I went through and to help those who have already suffered from brain injuries or are going through the process right now. So many millions and millions of people are suffering from traumatic brain injuries and I want to be able to support them in any way possible. I want to help the kids that are getting into sports and are starting to snowboard or skateboard or bike, and make sure they’re doing it in the safest and smartest way possible. Yeah they should go out there and have fun, and I’m not trying to stop anyone from having fun or getting out there and doing what they love but I just want to make sure I am educating them about safety in the best way possible.
Overall how is life now after making this big transition and starting Love Your Brain?
My life is a hell of a lot different than it was. It’s pretty much an exact opposite from the life I was living and yet it’s so great and exciting at the same time. Having been able to turn my injury into something positive is awesome. I feel so lucky that my path now is something that is so meaningful and has allowed me to have so much hope and excitement. I’ve really taken it from a different angle than “Oh I have this bad injury! Poor Kevin, poor me, this sucks” and made it the best of it by creating something absolutely amazing with the opportunities I have had.
To learn more about Kevin Pearce and the Love Your Brain foundation visit his website: KevinPearce.com.