The term “adrenaline junkie” is usually used in a throwaway sense to denote anyone who likes to inject a bit of risk-related buzz into their life, but Crash Reel, a new film about American pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce, suggests that we should perhaps start taking it more literally.
Can you really become addicted to adrenaline, in the same way that you can become addicted to drugs and alcohol? Pearce’s story, as told by British director Lucy Walker, suggests that yes, you can. On 31 December 2009, Pearce was riding the 22-foot halfpipe at Park City, Utah. The 2010 Vancouver Olympics were just a few weeks away and he was locked in a sort of snowboarding arms race for the halfpipe gold medal with his great rival Shaun White. The pair were operating on an entirely different level to everyone else in the elite snowboarding world, and whoever could assemble the most formidable arsenal of aerial tricks before Vancouver would most likely win.
White had spent a reported $2 million constructing his own private halfpipe at a secret location high in the mountains that could only be accessed by helicopter. By way of retaliation, Pearce had cut his own, more modest pipe with the help of his sponsors, Nike, and had been practising the trick-of-the-moment, the double cork (two flips and three-and-a-half spins) into an airbag. Now, at Park City, he and his friend Luke Mitrani were going to try this hazardous manoeuvre without the possibility of a soft landing.
In an interview for Crash Reel, Mitrani recalls what happened:
“I remember both of us being super nervous... It’s always scary to do the first double-cork. So me and Kevin do a little rock-paper-scissors and Kevin lost, so he dropped in.”
Slow motion footage shows Pearce almost complete the trick, but not quite. Instead of landing with his board facing down the wall of the pipe he lands with it sideways on. His upper body is thrown forwards and he lands squarely on his face. It was, as fellow pro snowboarder Scotty Lago describes it, “the perfect storm of falls – it couldn’t have been any worse.”
Pearce was helicoptered to the University of Utah Medical Centre in Salt Lake City where he spent over a month in intensive care, having suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Eventually, in June, he was allowed home, but as Walker’s film shows he was left with impaired sight, short-term memory loss, and – crucially – without the fine motor control necessary to snowboard at the highest level. Still, he was determined to get back on a board. His doctors advised strongly against it, telling him one more blow to the head could have dire consequences. His mum took him to see another snowboarder who suffered an initial TBI that had left him in a similar state to Kevin, then a second TBI that left him barely able to walk or talk. But in spite of having the risks spelled out for him – and in spite of seeing first-hand what could happen to him if he took even a relatively minor tumble – in December 2011 he met up with all his old snowboarding buddies at Breckenridge, Colorado and went for a slide.
It’s a difficult scene to watch: on the one hand, his enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s hard not to be delighted for him; on the other, every time he takes a little spill, you can’t help imagining the worst.
Towards the end of Crash Reel, the Pearce family are shown sitting around the dinner table, discussing Kevin’s future. “It’s really hard for you guys to know ... the amount that snowboarding does for me, and the amount I love it,” says Pearce.
“You know what it feels like to me, Kev?” says his dad, “It feels like an addiction.” And he’s right. If you edited this scene so that the word “heroin” was substituted for the word “snowboarding” it would still make perfect sense. The concerned parents, the angry brother who says, “I just don’t want you to die,” and Pearce’s bullish response: “I’m going to snowboard again, but I’m going to do it so I don’t die”– all are classic addict clichés. If Pearce is a tragic hero then adrenaline addiction is his tragic flaw – the thing that made him great, the thing that nearly killed him and yet also the thing that makes his story so compelling.
• Crash Reel is on release in selected cinemas from Friday.