“The brave do not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.” That is the motto of extreme sport athletes, who push themselves to perform higher, faster and more complex moves to impress their audience. As the risks increase, so do the numbers of serious injuries and premature deaths. The Crash Reel shows the tragic fall of world-class snowboarder Kevin Pearce, and his miraculous comeback amid the effects of a traumatic brain injury.
In 2009, the charismatic Kevin Pearce was sponsored by the biggest names in the industry and considered a serious medal contender for the upcoming Vancouver Olympics. His fans hoped he would finally dethrone his main rival, Shaun White, on the halfpipe. Both pro snowboarders were aiming to land one of the most dangerous and impressive maneuvers they knew – the double cork 1080 – to wow the Olympic judges.
Just weeks before the big event, Kevin’s life came crashing down when he miscalculated the tricky move during a practice session in Utah and landed directly on his face. In a split second, everything changed. Although he was wearing a helmet, the force of the fall broke his left eye socket and caused internal bleeding to his head. He was kept in a medically-induced coma and awoke in a vegetative state, no longer able to speak or walk. His family saw a ray of hope when he later mouthed the words to the song The Believer by Neil Young in his hospital bed.
British director Lucy Walker wasn’t at the hill when Kevin had his accident. She met him later during his recovery and wanted to share his incredible story with the world. Luckily enough, she realized snowboarders and their fans film everything; Kevin’s friends even regularly interviewed each other on camera. Walker managed to track down 232 people who had recorded valuable parts of Kevin’s life before, during and after the incident.
She pieced these clips together with moving moments spent with the Pearce family. The inexhaustible support of Kevin’s parents and three brothers is remarkable. David, who has Down syndrome (which he adorably calls Up syndrome to be more positive), is particularly devastated by his brother’s brain injury and eloquently explains his struggle to accept his own disability.
When Kevin has been a year of treatment and says he feels “100% confident” about going back to snowboarding, David is candid: “Not us. Not anybody. Number one, I don’t want you to die and number two, I don’t want you to be paralyzed or in a wheelchair.”
Therein lies the real tension in the film; as Kevin becomes stronger with the support of specialist doctors, he itches to start snowboarding again—even though his family and medical team insist that he isn’t ready. He might feel better, but he still suffers from severe vision and coordination problems, memory loss and confusion. It’s heartbreaking to watch him confide in his therapist through tears and exhaustion after learning he needs more surgery: “It just feels like it’s never ending. Will it never end?’
As his friends and fans call for his return, the athlete can’t imagine a life without his passion. His father worries that it’s an addiction and his girlfriend voices what those who cared for him most are thinking: “you don’t know what you’ve put us through.”
Two key aspects that felt overlooked in the film are the industry’s role in setting greater safety regulations for athletes, and that of insurance companies that often refuse to cover treatment costs. However, Kevin Pearce’s story inspired the #loveyourbrain outreach campaign to raise awareness of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The expression “crash reel” means a video compilation of a snowboarder’s most dramatic falls, meant to entertain those who watch it. Lucy Walker’s documentary is certainly not amusing, yet it does make you realize that in those jaw-dropping videos are brave but delicate human beings.