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Should Big Air Snowboarding Be "Reined In"?


Published January 5, 2010 at 4:40 p.m.

By now, those who follow snowboarding in Vermont know that on New Year's Eve, Kevin Pearce, a Burton Global Team rider from Norwich, Vt., was critically injured on a training run out in Utah. If you don't follow snowboarding, well, now you know. As would be expected, Pearce's crash has ignited a blaze of commentary on the safety of the sport. The question being asked in the wake of Pearce's accident has become, should snowboarders be allowed to go so big?

Pearce, 22, was one of Burton's rising stars. As a member of the company's men's Global team, Pearce rubbed elbows with the sport's major players — Shaun White, Terje Haakonsen and Jeremy Jones. He was a heavy favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team this year. White and Ohioan Louie Vito, a Stratton Mountain School grad and Dancing With the Stars alum, already qualified. Pearce was expected to provide stiff competition for the other men battling for spots on the halfpipe crew heading to Vancouver. He was practicing a double cork — a twisting double back-flip — when he was injured.

Pearce sustained a "severe traumatic brain injury" when he hit his forehead on an icy halfpipe at Park City Mountain Resort, where his brother Adam works as an instructor. He was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. He was flown to the University of Utah Hospital and continues to be listed in critical condition. According to an article in today's New York Times, Pearce is "intubated and being kept sedated," which is common in instances of head trauma. Friends and fans can follow Pearce's progress on the Facebook page set up for him.

Pearce is the son of Simon Pearce, founder of the eponymous glassblowing company and restaurant in Quechee. Jake Burton Carpenter, founder of Burton Snowboards, has known the Pearce family for years. He used to go snurfing with Pearce's uncles. Recently, Carpenter and his wife, Donna, flew to Utah to be with Pearce and his family.

The incident at Park City has brought a flurry of comments from television talking heads sounding off about the danger of the sport and the need for restrictions on the types of tricks that athletes can attempt. One of the most egregious examples comes from Christine Brennan, USA Today's resident scribe on all things Olympic. Brennan has been around the Olympic block a few times and as such feels qualified to opine on snowboarding's dark side — amplitude.

Brennan asserts that the pressure to go huge is so dangerous to athletes that the International Olympic Committee needs to commission a group to study the risk in the sport. Snowboarding made its debut in 1998 at the Nagano Olympics and was added, Brennan says, to increase television ratings. Since then, athletes have developed tricks that would never have been considered possible in the early days of the halfpipe. Year after year, big air riders like Pearce shatter the ceiling of what is possible on a snowboard.

In a recent Sports Illustrated article on Pearce, writer Austin Murphy touches on this envelope-pushing: "Luke Mitrani nearly stole the gold with a run that included a pair of double-cork hits. Pushed to his limit, [Shaun] White responded with a sequence even more electrifying, with multiple double corks. The ante had clearly been raised, and the Games were still six months away. 'It will be insane,' says [Jake] Burton."

In an interview on Good Morning America, Brennan sounds off about one of the criteria for judging the halfpipe, amplitude. The higher you go on your McTwist, backside rodeo or double Michalchuk, the more points you can get. But Brennan isn't into it: " get more points the higher you go is asking young fearless athletes to do things that are probably not best for them."

Hmmm, methinks one shouldn't be offering an opinion on this without consulting some snowboarders first. I daresay that no one forced Kevin Pearce to hit a double cork. Like every other athlete in extreme sports like snowboarding, I'm sure Pearce wanted to go big, bigger than his competitors. It's human nature to try to outdo previous generations. If we didn't have that drive, we would never progress as a society.

Athletes in individual judged or timed sports are no different. They want to go higher, faster, bigger than the other guy or gal. And they know the inherent risk. Tara Llanes, a U.S. National Champion downhill cyclist and X-Games gold medalist, understood the risk before she crashed and severed her spinal column during a race in Colorado. Karina Hollekim, a Norwegian free skier and BASE jumper understood the risk before she shattered both her legs in a skydiving accident in Switzerland. Extreme skiing legend Shane McConkey understood the risk before he died while ski-BASE jumping in Italy. 

To say that big air isn't the best thing for these elite snowboarders is taking away their agency and self-determination. Big air isn't the best for me since I'm a talentless amateur. But the people doing this, like Kevin Pearce, are professionals. They have spent years perfecting and massaging all of these tricks. They work with personal trainers to build up muscle and endurance. And they're not children.

Who knows if Kevin Pearce will hit double corks again. But one thing is sure — if he does, he'll go at them just as big, if not bigger, as before his accident. That's what elite athletes do.