Kevin Pearce was known as one of Shaun White‘s fiercest snowboarding competitors – but on New Year’s Eve of 2009, suddenly everything changed after he incurred a traumatic brain injury on the half-pipe.
Almost exactly two years since his death-defying accident, Pearce got back on his board at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado.
“It felt so good,” Pearce, 24, told PEOPLE shortly afterward. “It just feels so much like before. There’s nothing really new for me that I have to relearn, so that was nice.”
Says Pearce: “I’m really in the right state to be snowboarding right now.”
The Vermont-based athlete – who says if it were up to him instead of the doctor, he would have been back at his craft a year ago – explains the difficult recovery he continues to undergo since his life-changing injury.
“I’ve been working hard at a lot of things, whether it’s physical therapy or eye therapy,” Pearce says. “I got eye surgery about a month and a half ago. Even though my eyes are a lot better now, they’re not perfect, so I have been doing exercises with them. And I’ve been in the gym, working out. I’ve been getting everything together and working on my balance.”
Still, he faces significant challenges that will never go away.
“A brain injury is always a brain injury, and unfortunately I’m always going to be a brain-injured kid,” Pearce says. “The real issue I have is my memory. It’s hard to explain, because everyone’s always like, ‘Oh, my memory sucks, too.’ But nobody has any idea how much my memory affects me on a day-to-day basis.”
“And,” he says, “my balance is really bad. I used to have really, really good balance.”
Pearce, who stays “positive and hard working,” says the support of his loving mom, Pia, has helped his recovery along.
“She was really nervous [about me going back out there],” he says. “I think she dealt with it really well, though … I couldn’t even imagine how I’d handle it if my son almost died, and then he tried to go back and do it again. She just wants me to do the best I can. She’s just there for me all the time.”