LINCOLN >> A near-fatal halfpipe crash while training for the 2010 Olympics ended Kevin Pearce's snowboarding career and changed his life forever. Six years later, Pearce, 28, continues to cope with his traumatic brain injury that he will carry with him for the rest of his life and he's helping other survivors do the same.
Pearce, who grew up in Vermont, and his brother started the Love Your Brain Foundation to support traumatic brain injury survivors and caregivers. The foundation provides workshops for yoga teachers to cater their classes to brain injury survivors. It also offers a free yearly retreat for those with traumatic brain injury and their caregivers that is taking place this week in Lincoln, Vermont, and hopes to offer retreats in other parts of the country.
The foundation raises money to cover these activities and is working on educating young athletes about the importance of "loving their brains" and preventing concussions.
About 50 people from around the country and Canada are attending the third annual event that also features nutrition education, art, music and other mindfulness activities. Attendees can also share their personal stories.
"There was a huge missing piece to traumatic brain injuries and there's such an unknown for so many people of what to do after they sustain this injury," said Pearce, following a morning yoga class at the retreat in a barnlike building on a hillside.
Alternatives such as acupuncture, yoga and meditation are proving helpful to traumatic brain injury survivors in their recoveries, said Dr. Roger Knakal, medical director of physical medicine and rehabilitation and the University of Vermont Medical Center.
One of the hardest parts about traumatic brain injuries is that they are invisible injuries, said Pearce's brother Adam.
The biggest eye-opener was how isolated people can become from a brain injury, he said.
"When you have a brain injury, you feel so not normal," said Pearce. "You're thrown back into the regular world. You're expected to be as you were before this. We're not able to do that because we're now a new person."
Pearce was considered, along with Shaun White, to be one of America's top athletes in the sport at the time of his crash. On New Year's Eve in 2009, he struck his head during half-pipe training in Utah. He was in critical care for a month and then acute care for two weeks before moving to a rehabilitation center in Denver. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, even swallow. The family then moved back to Vermont where he continued rehab.
Pearce, who now lives in Bend, Oregon, continues to do cognitive therapy and is seeing eye therapists in Chicago to help with vision problems. He maintains a busy schedule, speaking to various groups about his story and the importance of "loving your brain" and showing the 2013 documentary about him called "Crash Reel."
Ari Havusha, 20, of Vancouver, returned to the retreat for the third time this year. He said he suffered several severe concussions and an eye injury as a teen soccer player and another severe concussion later during a college fall. He lives with a constant headache.
Havusha withdrew from McGill University in Montreal and returned home, where he became anxious and depressed. His mother pointed to the Love Your Brain retreat and right away, Havusha said, he knew he had to do it.
"It was a huge turning point for me," he said. "I saw other people and their traumatic stories and I was able to connect with other people. Suddenly I was kind of lifted out of that isolation I felt so heavily."