Snowboarder Kevin Pearce on Olympic Brain Injuries and the Benefits of Yoga

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Snowboarder Kevin Pearce on Olympic Brain Injuries and the Benefits of Yoga

Kevin Pearce was a heavily medaled snowboarder before he began training for the Olympic Trials in 2009, with the hopes of competing in Vancouver in 2010. He had won the European Open Halfpipe, Billabong Air & Style Quarterpipe and Toyota Big Air, to name a few, and those are just some of his first place titles. In short, Pearce was one of the few athletes who could—and did—beat America’s darling Shaun White.

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Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty

That is, until he sustained a traumatic brain injury when he hit his head on the halfpipe in Park City, Utah during his Olympic Trials training, forcing him to cut his career short just shy of the games—what would have been his first.

And while 52,000 of the 1.7 million Americans who sustain brain injuries annually die, Pearce channeled his athletic passion into his recovery, and was back home in five months, after three months of rehab. Oh, and he was back on a board only 712 days after his injury.

Pearce’s remarkable resilience during rehab was brought to life in the award winning HBO documentary The Crash Reel that appeared at Sundance in 2013. With the success of the film and his newfound career in public speaking, he was inspired to found LoveYourBrain, a nonprofit that supports, educates and improves the lives of those affected by traumatic brain injuries, while also focusing on yoga as a way to cope with injury. His work has garnered the support and attention of major athletic outlets and brands, including lululemon, which is touring the country with LoveYourBrain throughout #MindfulMarch to raise awareness of the impacts of traumatic brain injury through yoga, meditation and conversation.

We spoke to Pearce about how yoga has changed his life, what most people don’t know about brain injuries and, of course, snowboarding.

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Paste Health: What’s one thing people don’t know about brain injuries and brain health?
Kevin Pearce: Unlike other injuries, brain injuries have lifelong effects. Brain injuries effect your life in a much bigger way than I would have ever known, until it happened to me. Living with a brain injury for seven years, and still living with the daily ramifications, has been a process that I continue to work on, each and every day.

PH: Would you say you’re fully recovered at this point? If not, what do you want to achieve?
KP: No. I suffer from binocular double-vision due to my fall. I am working to heal and fix this issue by changing my glasses every two hours, every day. The lenses in each pair of glasses are different and through this process, I am ultimately changing the injured brain waves from my accident to align and work better together. I am “seeing” the difference—pun intended! I feel that, one day, I will be able to see perfectly.

PH: How do you approach snowboarding differently now?
KP: Snowboarding for me, now, is a way to escape to total fun and enjoyment. I no longer get on my board needing to win or be the best. I now strap in to feel the enjoyment and freedom that I only find on a snowboard.

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Photo by Harry How/Getty

PH: What are your athletic goals? Do you want, or is it possible for you to attempt to train for the Olympics again?
KP: I no longer have the ability to put myself into that position and risk hitting my head again. Our brains can’t be injured that severely for a second time, and putting myself in that situation is something I’m not willing to do.

PH: What was the emotional recovery like? There must have been bouts of depression before you were able to snowboard again. How did you cope with that?
KP: It was difficult to no longer be at the height of my snowboarding career, and for people to see me in that light. However, I am incredibly grateful that I’ve had supportive friends and family that see me for me, regardless of a certain professional title.

PH: Were you ever afraid to get back on a board?
KP: No. Snowboarding is something that has never scared me, regardless of my injury.

PH: Your foundation, LoveYourBrain, does a lot of work using yoga. How has yoga impacted your life?
KP: Yoga has hands down been the biggest proponent of calmness and joy in my life since I injured my brain. Yoga and meditation came into my life at the perfect moment, when I needed it the most. I could have never imagined anything to be so calming and balancing as yoga and meditation. It is something that I practice daily; I find peace and pleasure at each session. For me, yoga is not about the individual poses, it’s about the entire practice and taking the time to find peace and coming into the most balanced place I can be.

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Photo courtesy of lululemon

PH: What made you start practicing yoga? How were you introduced to it?
KP: I started practicing yoga in 2014 when a close friend invited me to a class. My friend thought it would be helpful for me to slow down; living with a TBI, I am sometimes overwhelmed with my busy mind and I’m always trying to keep up. Yoga allows me to slow down and be intentional, which welcomes more self-patience.

PH: And what about meditation?
KP: I meditate daily. Like everything in life, meditation is a daily practice and I’m finding daily peace in my practice. I am working on incorporating these practices into every part of my life, not just snowboarding. I truly believe yoga and meditation will allow me to get calm, get centered and be in a space of joy. For me, I don’t want to work to be present, I just want to live and be present.

PH: In what specific ways has meditation enhanced your life?
KP: Meditation gives me the ability to feel a clearer sense of mind. It keeps me in touch with who I really am, outside of all the titles that people use to describe me. Meditation helps me come back to a place of calm and comfort. When things are stressful, I have the tools to tap into the calm that always exists within me. For example, public speaking can be overwhelming and tiring, especially when I’m doing back-to-back sessions (I am currently on the road for LoveYourBrain’s west coast tour). It’s helpful to always come back to my breath, which allows me to approach stressful situations with more ease.

PH: Many people have difficulty meditating at first. Did you?
KP: Yes, meditation was unbelievably difficult for me to start, and at first, I used guided meditations to help me learn. The hardest part for me was truly believing that I could calm my mind and slow my thoughts. I now find the most calm and comfort when I can just “be” with myself in quiet. Getting to that quiet place has been healing and the most helpful.

PH: What advice do you have for people having trouble getting into meditation?
KP: Like anything, meditation takes time, patience and a deliberate practice. The benefits are so worth it!

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Photo courtesy of lululemon

PH: When do you feel healthiest?
KP: I feel healthiest and happiest when I’m able to be on a schedule that includes a daily practice of yoga, meditation and healthy eating. I also feel a sense of freedom and clarity just being outside in nature.

PH: How do you keep your brain, and body, healthy? Are their certain foods you eat or avoid?
KP: I’ve always eaten healthy. Food is an important element in my healing and I am highly conscious of what I put in my body. I gravitate toward natural, organic, whole foods and stay away from sugar, alcohol and foods that might taste great, but we know are not nourishing.

PH: Do you exercise outside of snowboarding and yoga? If so, what do you do?
KP: Yes. I try to live the most active life that I can, which includes outdoor activities—biking, running, hiking. Most anything that gets me outside.

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Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty

PH: You’re working with lululemon, which I think many men think is a “women’s” brand. What do you have to say to that?
KP: I am so happy to say that lululemon makes the most comfortable, cool, soft men’s clothing that I have ever worn. To me, lululemon is not just a women’s brand; they provide technical apparel for everyone.

PH: What are your must-have workout items?
KP: lululemon’s Metal Vent Tech Short Sleeve shirt is my favorite. I wear that shirt everyday. And, their socks keep my smelly feet dry and comfortable.

PH: What advice do you have for athletes overcoming an injury?
KP: No matter what it is that you’re faced with or recovering from, if you put your mind to it, you can overcome and heal from anything.

Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant health editor.

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