ASPEN, Colo. • The news, for Kevin Pearce, was all too familiar and horrifying.
A star in the halfpipe goes down hard during a training accident in Utah and is airlifted to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.
But the stories diverge from there: Pearce’s had a good ending. Sarah Burke’s did not.
Two years removed from an amazing recovery after a training accident in Park City, Pearce did some TV work at the Winter X Games last week — games that were played in honor of Burke, the freestyle skier whose accident in the same halfpipe led to her death earlier in January.
Despite the loss of one of their stars and the injury-forced retirement of another, Winter X athletes all around the snow park in Aspen insisted the games must go on.
Pearce agrees that pressing on is the right thing to do. He does not think the sport has become too dangerous.
“These guys are up there doing it for themselves,” Pearce said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They’re up there pushing the sport and pushing the limits because it’s what they want to do. If it was pressure being put on by fans or sponsors or family, then I might say, ‘OK, we need to cool this and calm this.’ But it’s because they love it so much and they have so much fun with it that they’re taking it to that level.”
Nor does Pearce, the 24-year-old former champion, think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the halfpipe in Park City, which has been the site of two of the sport’s most high-profile and horrific accidents.
“It’s just bad luck, a coincidence,” Pearce said. “The halfpipe this happened in was good. Park City has a good halfpipe. It’s just where we’re pushing the sport. These things are going to happen. But Sarah’s wasn’t even a hard trick.”
Burke was performing a 540-degree flat spin when she landed awkwardly and sustained the injuries that caused her death. The trick is considered routine for an elite athlete. Viewing the Burke tragedy as a fluke — she just landed wrong — has blunted some of the argument that the sport has become too dangerous.
“It’s a very challenging and difficult situation to assess because I think it’s the nature of all sports,” said snowboarding’s founding father, Jake Burton. “All sports are getting pushed to a point where people are risking life and limb. And I think when you talk about it, it’s hard not to sort of sound overly conservative or old-fashioned or hung up on safety. But I think we’ve got to let the athletes do what they want to do and let the kids progress the sport where they want it to go.”
It is good, Burton notes, that helmets have become mandatory on competitive halfpipes and slopestyle courses.
Meanwhile, better course-building technology has, in many opinions, somewhat offset the effects of bigger pipes and ramps that make harder tricks possible and, thus, increase the danger factor. For instance, though a 22-foot halfpipe is 25 percent bigger than five years ago, the increased size also makes for a better cushion in the landing areas.
“If you made a mistake on an 18-foot pipe, you were going to land in a flat bottom very, very quickly,” said Kelly Clark, an Olympic gold medalist who won the X Games on Friday for her 13th straight superpipe victory this season. “With these 22s, if you pull off the wall, you’ll catch some (transition area) and, in turn, it’s less injuries.”
Pearce’s days on the 22-foot halfpipe are over.
He still rides every day, but these are mellow trips down the mountain — nothing risky, because another fall of any sort could cause a setback “and it’s not worth it to me, not after how hard I’ve worked the last two years.”
He says it’s difficult sitting at the bottom of a run, watching his friends come down the mountain, throwing tricks that he once threw. He used to be one of the best in the world; the guy who might, someday, push Shaun White off the winner’s stand. When he feels sorry for himself, though, he thinks about how hard he worked to get to where he’s at. Now, sadly, in the wake of Burke’s death, he has another thing to think about.
“I’m sitting here (complaining) about not riding in a halfpipe,” he said. “But I’m alive and I’m talking to you and I’m cruising, snowboarding. It puts it all in perspective. It makes me realize how lucky I am.”