In this Feb. 18, 2010 file photo, Gretchen Bleiler smiles as she competes in the women's snowboard halfpipe at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She is coming back after a fall during training in which she suffered a concussion. / Marcio Sanchez AP
ASPEN, Colo. -- The dumbest ride Kevin Pearce ever 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 team and 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 The American 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.
"It's a bit I wouldn't say blas√©, but it comes with the territory," snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler said of the prevailing attitude toward concussions for elite athletes.
Bleiler, 31, came back this month from a concussion she suffered in June. Training on a trampoline, she broke her eye socket and nose when she over-rotated a flip and hit her face with her knee. She estimates it was her fourth or fifth concussion.
Among those athletes interviewed for this story with four or more concussions were four gold medalists from this year's X Games. Pearce and his good friend Scotty Lago, an Olympic bronze medalist in the snowboard halfpipe, both claimed to have had six or seven.
"It seems like all the kind of top dogs are so good, they kind of put themselves through that to get to that level because of how dangerous these sports are," said Pearce.
"When you're in it ... you're just having so much fun, you're just living this life of a rock star, it's like, 'I'm not gonna stop this if I go hit my head. Whatever. I'm fine. I can come back.'"
A SENSE OF INVINCIBILITY
While the sport has progressed in its understanding and treatment of concussions, athletes and doctors spoke of an attitude of nonchalance toward the brain injury. With athletes in their teens and early 20s performing awe-inspiring tricks, a sense of invincibility is common.
"There is the illusion of greatness. There is the illusion of invincibility because you are out there performing things that have never been done," said U.S. freeskier David Wise, 21. A back-to-back gold medalist at the X Games in the superpipe, Wise said he has suffered four or five concussions.
Older athletes speak of a learning curve. If young skiers and snowboarders start out with that sense of invincibility, they'll learn. Kelly Clark, 29, has been the most dominant female snowboarder in the world the past two years thanks in part to staying relatively injury free.
"There is a youthful invincibility in this sport. That's part of what progresses it. That's part of what makes it great and exciting," she said. "I think for the longevity, the lasting impact, being mindful of that is what's gonna do it for you."
Asked about their worst injuries, almost all the athletes interviewed for this story pointed to a broken bone or torn ligament. Head injuries were characterized by many is minor.
Part of that is the nature of the injury, one that isn't visible with a cast or crutches. Speaking about athletes generally, Mark Lovell ‚?? the creator of the ImPACT computerized concussion evaluation system ‚?? said most would opt for a concussion over an ACL tear.
"If you tear an ACL playing in the NFL, you know you're out for the season," said Lovell. "If you have a concussion, they see that as being ‚?? even though the consequences could be much more severe ‚?? they see that as not as challenging."
The athletes all said that while they're aware of the risks, they don't think about them on the course. Performing extremely technical tricks high above a jump or halfpipe requires focus on the moment and not on the worst-case scenarios.
Tragically, the sport has seen those. Freeskier Sarah Burke died in January 2012 after hitting her heard during a training accident in Park City, Utah.
But athletes said the best way to honor Burke is to keep competing.
"You don't want to live your life in fear. You take calculated risks, and that's a small percentage that can happen," said Lago. "You definitely never thinking of falling, that's for sure. And you definitely don't think of injury, not when you're competing and living in the moment."
Added skier Maddie Bowman, "I think we love the adrenaline rush, and you just kind of go, 'Well, if I'm gonna get hurt ‚?? knock on wood ‚?? I'm going to do it doing something really cool.' That's what we love to do."
While the tricks come with risks, it's the way those are mitigated that athletes want people to understand. Moves that viewers see on TV are often practiced repeatedly in safer environments before they are tried in a competition. Double corks and triple corks ‚?? off-axis flips that are the latest, toughest tricks in the sport ‚?? aren't just learned on snow.
At the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association's (USSA) Center of Excellence in Park City, athletes can practice tricks on a trampoline. On the mountain, many use large airbags or foam pits to provide a soft landing.
"We need to learn all these tricks," said freeskier Devin Logan, "but we're not going out and just chucking them on snow."
It will likely take decades for researchers to understand what these types of brain injuries, and their frequency, mean for these athletes. Some of the first generation of these athletes ‚?? those like Clark, White and Bleiler ‚?? are still competing.
"We certainly don't know (the long-term consequences) in skiing and snowboarding because we just haven't had the research," said Melinda Roalstad. former medical director with the USSA who now runs a program that helps educate athletes about concussions. "What we're learning from is football."
Some former NFL players have offered a glimpse, with their brains showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The degenerative disease has been found in those with repeated concussions and head trauma. Symptoms can include dementia, depression and memory loss.
Doctors and researchers agree that athletes competing now often don't consider the long-term effects of repeated concussions, an attitude certainly not unique to these sports. There is no clear line of demarcation signaling that exceeding 'X' number of concussions portends permanent damage.
"In terms of the concussions, everybody has had them," said Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the U.S. Snowboard team. "We've all become much more aware of them and much more sensitive to the importance of them. And how important they are to the future life of these guys too, but that's not something that they always see."
Three years after his accident, Pearce is still dealing with the consequences. He still loves snowboarding and were he capable, he'd still be competing.
But he hopes people can learn from his experience, something that might affect the culture toward concussions. Pearce is part of the #loveyourbrain education campaign.
"It's not a bad enough injury that it takes you out for good," said Pearce, "but it is a bad enough injury that it will take you out for good in the long run."
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