Head injuries a rising danger for snowboarders, skiers
ASPEN, Colo. — The dumbest ride Kevin Pearceever took down the halfpipe wasn’t the one that ended his snowboarding career. That run on Dec. 31, 2009, the one that resulted in a traumatic brain injury less than two months before the Vancouver Olympics, came less than three weeks after the run Pearce says he should have never taken.
Earlier that month, Pearce, who was 22 at the time, was pushing to qualify for the U.S. Olympic teamand emerging as a challenger to Shaun White. Trying to land a cab 1080, a trick that Pearce had “on lock,” he fell and hit his head. Hard.
“I was so sick and so dizzy and so gone after that,” he recalled this month.
But Pearce’s handling of less severe concussions and his life-changing brain injury highlight the extremes of what can go wrong when athletes hurtle themselves three stories in the air to perform tricks on a hard-packed halfpipe.
White, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, will defend his halfpipe title this weekend at the U.S. Open snowboarding championships in Vail, Colo. While the season ends in March, White and other athletes will spend the coming months working on tricks in pursuit of medals at the Sochi Olympics less than a year away.
In The Crash Reel, a documentary chronicling Pearce’s accident and recovery, White said he’s suffered nine concussions in his career. White declined to comment. Samantha Hill, White’s publicist, could not confirm that number but suggested it was a “ball park guess.”
Like any sport, snowboarding and freeskiing come with risks and to the extent that is possible, athletes do their best to mitigate them. But with elite athletes suffering multiple concussions at a young age, more questions than answers remain about a culture perhaps nonchalant in its attitude toward concussions and the effects on their long-term health.
For Pearce, there are answers to those questions after struggling to accept the impact it has had on him. Following his accident, Pearce underwent years of rehab to relearn motor skills, improve his vision and memory, to function in everyday life.
Acceptance has not come easy, and with the benefit of hindsight, Pearce knows now that his accident might not have been as severe had he not taken that second run less than three weeks earlier.
“It’s because my head was not healed and I shouldn’t have been snowboarding again,” he said. “That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life was to take that next run. For the consequences and how dangerous it was, it’s a joke that I even thought about doing that.”
Yet Pearce’s attitude hardly makes him unique in the sport. Concussions, especially for snowboarders, are increasingly just part of getting to the top. While concussion research has focused on the impact in sports like football , there is less known or studied about the rates of concussions in snowboarding and skiing.
A study by researchers at the University of New Mexico published last month in TheAmerican Journal of Sports Medicine found the rate of closed head injuries more than doubled at one resort, Taos Ski Valley, after it allowed snowboarders on the slope starting in March 2008.
Without snowboarding, the resort saw a rate of 9.3 people suffering a closed head injury per 100,000 mountain visits. That jumped to 19.5 per 100,000 mountain visits after the resort allowed snowboarding. David Rust, the study’s lead author, said the large majority of head injuries involved concussion-type symptoms, with only a small proportion requiring an advanced imaging test.
While the study offers a small glimpse of the impact at one resort, anecdotally it does not differ from the experiences of the sports’ elite. Of a dozen athletes interviewed at or after this year’s X Games, three said they’d had fewer than four concussions. All were freeskiers.