Snowboarder with brain injury inspires VUHS community

VERGENNES — On Tuesday morning a rapt audience of all Vergennes Union High School students and staff members listened to a man who was once one of the world’s best snowboarders talk about how his life changed “in the blink of an eye” about 10 years ago. He spoke about how he has dealt with that change and is trying to help others face similar adversity.
Speaking in a packed VUHS auditorium was Kevin Pearce, a Vermonter who was once a medal favorite for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and is the co-founder of the Love Your Brain Foundation.
While training for the Olympics in 2009 in Utah Pearce fell and suffered a life-threatening traumatic brain injury, or TBI. His foundation, which he founded with his brother, works to help those with TBIs and promotes brain safety and health.
Pearce’s response to a student questioner after his talk possibly best embodied his message about something he said could happen to anyone.
“You don’t get to choose if bad things happen to you,” he said. “It’s how you deal with it, how you fight through it and move out of it.”
Pearce’s talk came at the invitation of the VUHS senior class, which is dedicating its 11th annual charity walk-a-thon to a classmate, Michael Alexopoulos, who also has a TBI, in his case due to a childhood car accident.
Part of the proceeds from the Monday, Oct. 15, fundraising walk will help Alexopoulos attend a Love Your Brain retreat. The class also plans to donate to Love Your Brain and Lincoln’s Zeno Mountain Farm, which according to its website “champions lifelong friendship and opportunity for people with diverse needs.”
Seniors on Monday morning will walk — or run — 8.5 miles from Starksboro’s Jerusalem Schoolhouse on Jerusalem Road to Zeno Mountain Farm. Over the years VUHS senior classes have raised thousands of dollars annually for a variety of causes, including donations to Porter Hospital and the UVM Medical Center.
Those donations have always been tied to a community member’s situation, and sometimes to a classmate. Seniors Kylie Comeau and Ezekiel Palmer said before Pearce’s talk it means a lot to the class members that they are honoring Alexopoulos’s request to support his cause.
“Michael came to us and he was telling us about Love Your Brain, this great organization, and he’s been trying to be part of it for a couple of years now. And so this was a great way for us to find that connection. And also just doing something for a classmate was really near and dear to our heart,” Comeau said.
Palmer agreed with Comeau that support for the idea was strong among their classmates.
“I think the idea of walking for a classmate who suffers from a TBI and was injured as a young child, who came to us and chose … the Love Your Brain Foundation, which supports other people with the same kind of disability, I think that really gets on the good side of people,” Palmer said. “Everybody is just really supportive and coming together.”
Pearce’s presentation could boost the seniors’ fundraising efforts.
It included home movies and a short film documenting his meteoric rise on the international snowboard circuit, including his first-place finishes going head-to-head against multiple Olympic gold medal-winner Shaun White; footage of his devastating practice fall and his three-month hospital stay; his lengthy recovery of most, but not all of his functions; his frustration that he can no longer compete; and his growing focus on helping others with TBIs.
Pearce spoke about his journey and his work.   
“I became one of the best snowboarders in the world, and that was pretty cool,” Pearce said. “And that’s how it all started.”
He talked about pushing the envelope to learn a new trick that he knew White was also mastering, and getting injured despite taking every precaution. First came an ankle injury, which he said was an easier problem than the brain, which is slower to heal and also requires more research.
“When you break a bone it’s pretty simple to fix it,” he said.
But repairing his brain?
“I worked hard to get back,” Pearce said. “This has taken everything I have.”
A central part of his message is that no one should take his or her brains for granted. 
“This is the most important part of your body … This is your control system,” he said. “This thing lets me love my pets. This thing lets me love my family.”
His foundation pushes for protection for any activity that poses a threat of head injuries, such as skiing, snowboarding or biking — he said without a helmet he would have died at the bottom of the Park City halfpipe.
“There’s no one who can come up to me after this talk and say, ‘I don’t wear a helmet. I’m cool,’” Pearce said.
Pearce also said Love Your Brain means not dwelling on “automatic negative thoughts,” or ANTs.
“The hardest things to get rid of are the ANTs,” he said.
Pearce told students not to be harsh on themselves, such as calling themselves stupid after mistakes.
“You’re not stupid. Don’t go to that negative place,” he said. “You go negative and you’re going to go down. You go positive and you’re going to go up.”
And Pearce asked them to pick each other up if they saw friends going down that path.
“You guys have got to be there for one another,” he said.
He also recommended meditation and mindfulness, a few moments of quietness and escape daily from overwhelming thoughts made possible by being still, closing eyes, and focusing on inhaling and exhaling.
“It’s impossible to stop thinking, but you can slow your thoughts down,” he said. “When you meditate all you have to do is come to your breath.”
“This has helped me to heal in ways that I can’t even explain,” he added, before persuading more than 300 people to do so in unison for a minute in a pin-drop quiet room.
“Look at how chill we all are now, right?” Pearce said.
In response to questions Pearce said double vision remains a major side effect, and he tilted his head back.
“Now I see two of everything,” he said, adding his brain still is not able to “give him all the information” he needs.
But he said he was convinced he would beat all his problems, despite what his doctors told him.
“I will heal this. I got hurt 10 years ago, and I’m still getting better,” Pearce said, shortly before fist-bumping Alexopoulos and receiving a standing ovation.
Palmer said the seniors hope the inspirational message from Pearce, who plans to meet them on Monday at Zeno Mountain, will give their walk-a-thon a boost.
“It means so much to be able to help community members, to help Mike, to know that people are there for him, and to give back to others who aren’t as lucky as some of the rest of us, who have suffered from these traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities,” he said. “Just to be able to give back to people is a really cool thing.”
Comeau called it heartwarming to see how the charity walk can both “impact certain people’s lives” and create unity among her classmates.
“We all go our separate ways. There are some people at the career center. There are some people at Walden (the VUHS off-campus alternative education program). There are people in my class that I haven’t seen for weeks,” she said.
“It’s just something to bring us all together and remind us that these are the people that we started out with from day one, before the injury even happened. They remember him (Alexopoulos) going through all that, they remember the whole process, and how he’s doing now vs. how he was doing then, and all the progress he’s made. So it’s just really interesting to see how you can be so supportive of one another, and be there for each other at a time of need.”
The seniors and longtime charity walk staff advisor Lee Shorey believe other schools should consider similar efforts.
“The idea is maybe we can get tons of schools all over the place doing it. Maybe someday it will be a national thing where everybody walks to support a cause,” Palmer said. “I think all of us want it to spread.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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