MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
(SOUNDBITE OF SNOWBOARDING COMPETITION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Kevin Pearce, U.S.A.
BLOCK: In 2009, snowboarder Kevin Pearce was riding high, soaring skyward on the halfpipe, twisting his body into breathtaking acrobatic flips.
KEVIN PEARCE: Woo. I'm happy, man. Great day. Great day.
BLOCK: At age 22, Pearce was one of the world's top halfpipe riders and a favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2010 Vancouver games. Then a devastating training accident brought those hopes to an end on New Year's Eve 2009.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He got his toe edge and just boom like that, like so (bleep) hard and no hands to cover his face.
BLOCK: Kevin Pearce's struggle to recover from that head injury, with the help of his family, is revealed in the powerful, new documentary film "The Crash Reel." It's directed Lucy Walker.
LUCY WALKER: Kevin was attempting a trick called a cab double cork that he was practicing. And he just slightly missed the landing and plunged headfirst with all the force of having rotated three times in the air at crazy angles and slammed his forehead into the hard halfpipe. And he was in a coma and was very lucky to survive.
BLOCK: But he did sustain a traumatic brain injury and his recovery was long and painful. What was his state when you first met him?
WALKER: I met Kevin the summer after the accident, in 2010, and he was in terrible shape from his severe traumatic brain injury. His eyes were looking different directions. He couldn't remember much, so he kept re-introducing himself to me and saying, Hey, I'm Kevin. He couldn't read. He kept sleeping. He was very visibly brain-injured. And I didn't realize you could go from not knowing your name - Kevin came out of his coma not knowing his name, not being able to stand up or eat. And at this point, this was still fairly early in that recovery. This was his first excursion from the hospital when I met him.
BLOCK: Well, later on, in his recovery, it becomes clear that Kevin wants desperately to get back into snowboarding. And you have a scene of Kevin at his doctor's office. They're looking at a brain scan, images of his own brain. And the doctor showing him a part of his brain that's black on the image. It's scarred.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CRASH REEL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I don't believe these scars are ever going to go away. You still want to snowboard?
PEARCE: Yes, I still want to snowboard. I want that feeling back.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Medically and neurologically, you cannot afford to hit your head.
PEARCE: It's interesting because I feel like I know so well what I should be doing and what I shouldn't be doing.
BLOCK: And, Lucy, this is really the heart of the movie, right, can Kevin decide for himself that it's OK to go back to snowboarding when his family is completely opposed to that?
WALKER: Yeah, the risks in extreme sports are huge, obviously. And there's a question about athletes in general going for those risks. But in Kevin's case, the way his brain was hit, it can't sustain any more impact. And so his doctors and his family are hugely concerned that if he hits his head again, even very slightly - a knock that you and I might not even feel a concussion from - that that could absolutely kill him. And, of course, you can't do this kind of snowboarding in the halfpipe without hitting your head routinely. Then there's the question of Kevin's judgment. You know, is Kevin's judgment impaired by the brain injury? Is it him, is it the athlete, or is it the brain injury talking when he insists on getting back into the halfpipe?
BLOCK: Kevin Pearce clearly comes from a remarkable family. And you're there for really candid family discussions around the dinner table. His mother, Pia, and his father, who's a well-known blower, Simon Pearce, and Kevin Pearce's brothers, including David, who has Down syndrome, and the two sons are extremely close, and there are really interesting exchanges between the two of them. Let's take a listen to one.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CRASH REEL")
PEARCE: I feel a hundred percent confident.
DAVID PEARCE: Not us.
PEARCE: Not you?
PEARCE: Not anybody.
SIMON PEARCE: Calling a spade a spade, isn't it, David?
PEARCE: I just don't want him to die.
PEARCE: I don't want to die either, Dave.
BLOCK: So interesting because it's David, who has Down syndrome, who was able to cut to the chase and just get to the heart of what everybody in the family is feeling as they confront Kevin.
WALKER: That's right. The dynamic between these two brothers is fascinating, two intellectual disabilities, one from birth and one acquired. And each of the brothers refuses to accept their disability. David hates his Down syndrome, and Kevin refuses to believe that life is different now after the accident.
And the way that the two ultimately challenge one another to come to grips with this new reality, this disability, and embrace where they're at is an incredible story that is sort of - people think it's a snowboarding movie, but it's not at all. It really is about this journey of coming into acceptance of what is really real.
BLOCK: The film does raise questions about how complicit we all are as viewers of extreme sports in injuries like Kevin Pearce's. And there's a scene where his father, Simon Pearce, is talking about feeling responsible, breaking down when he thinks about whether he in some way is responsible for his son's injury, with the pressures and the expectations and all the money and sponsorships that lie behind it. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "THE CRASH REEL")
PEARCE: There should be limits, I think, just like there is in car racing. Finally, they had to limit the size of the engines in the racing cars because people were killing themselves. And it's the same in the halfpipe. If you make the walls higher, which makes it more dramatic for the spectators and the television and the media, the athlete will go. I mean, he'll push it to the limits. It's in the athlete's make-up. I felt that at some level we were all to blame.
BLOCK: Lucy Walker, what do you think about that? Are we all to blame?
WALKER: I wanted to call the film "The Crash Reel" because there are these things called crash reels which many filming companies and many athletes have which are enormously popular, very glamorous edits of all the gnarliest crashes. And this culture of extremes that we are in, I wanted to ask questions about that.
And I wanted to sort of slow down one crash and show the buildup to it and the rippling effects rather than what we see on YouTube so commonly which is these just, glamour, glamour, glamour, crash, crash, crash without anybody really stopping to consider what these crashes entail for these individual athletes, which are, you know, life-changing or life-ending injuries.
BLOCK: And as you ask those questions about our role in all of this, have you answered them for yourself?
WALKER: I think we are all complicit and we do all need to take responsibility for what we watch. Sadly, I think the way the sports are configured, athletes are going to continue to crash and be killed. And I think we should be asking the most serious possible questions about that.
BLOCK: You know, I'm looking right now at an image from Kevin Pearce's Twitter feed. It's an Instagram picture of him about a week ago. He's got his goggles on and his face is crusted with snow and he's got this big grin. And the caption - his caption says: I'm a happy boy. And he's out there. He's clearly out there snowboarding, in this case, in British Columbia.
WALKER: Yeah, Kevin is snowboarding. He's taking it very easy. And he does it in nice, soft powder. But I have to say, I continue to worry about him. I mean, once you've sustained the kind of extreme traumatic brain injury that he sustained, I'll forever worry about Kevin. And the story's never over yet.
BLOCK: Lucy Walker is the director of the new movie "The Crash Reel." Lucy, thanks very much.
WALKER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE DAY")
ASAF AVIDAN: (Singing) One day baby, we'll be old. Oh baby, we'll be old. And think of all the stories that we could have told.
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.