It seems pretty obvious that extreme sports athletes are at a high risk for concussion. Just as 250 pound football players crashing into each other seems patently inclined to cause brain injury, young skiers and snowboarders launching themselves three stories in the air has a patent risk for crashes and traumatic brain injury.
For a long time, these concussions have been treated as just another part of becoming the best. Many athletes treated them like sprains or bruises, injuries that the athlete is supposed to “walk off” or work through. Now that new research, and unfortunately the personal experiences of a few ex-winter extreme sports athletes, snowboarders and skiers are slowly learning the actual danger of continuing to practice and compete after a brain injury.
Kevin Pearce is the most harrowing cautionary tale imaginary for these athletes. Pearce used to be a professional snowboarder who, at the age of 22, was emerging as a serious competitor to reigning snowboarding king Shaun White. Then, two months before the Vancouver Olympics, Pearce’s career was ended by a brain injury.
Pearce recognizes that final run wasn’t the defining moment in ending his career. No, the run Pearce regrets came three weeks earlier while trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. While attempting a trick Pearce had pulled off countless times before, he crashed and hit his head hard. The fall before the impact was over two stories high.
“It’s because my head was not healed and I shouldn’t have been snowboarding again,” Pearce told USA Today. “That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life was to take that next run. For the consequences and how dangerous it was, it’s a joke that I even thought about doing that.”
Pearce isn’t the only snowboarder to hop back on the board even though they don’t feel right. If they’re body is fit to compete, many winter athletes ignore all the warning signs they are feeling mentally for their chance at glory.
In The Crash Reel, a documentary focused on Pearce’s injury and long recovery, Shaun White says he has suffered nine concussions over the course of his career. His publicist calls that a “ball park guess” which just underscored how under-evaluated White’s brain injuries have been. Likewise, while every NFL and NHL concussion makes headlines thanks to stricter regulations and scores of people concerned with their fantasy team’s rosters, none of White’s brain injuries have been reported that I could find.
Some studies have been done showing how prevalent concussions are for winter athletes, but anecdotal evidence paints a more vivid picture. After last year’s X Games, roughly a dozen athletes were asked about their brain injury experiences. Only three said they had endured less than four concussions. That means 75-percent of professional winter extreme sports athletes have had more than four concussions in their career. In 2006, White called the “four or five” concussions he had dealt with as “lucky” in Sports Illustrated.
Repeated concussions are exponentially more dangerous than an isolated event. Recent sports safety authorities have been pushing a “when in doubt, sit it out” policy for head injury, but it is much harder to change the cultures of sports that thrive on extreme risk-reward scenarios.
These athletes assume huge risks by just participating, but there has always been a focus on trying to make the sports as safe as possible. There is no reason to say people shouldn’t be allowed to hurl themselves several stories in the air or perform death-defying stunts. However, it should be obvious that snowboarding and skiing need to implement better brain injury detection regulations, and the athletes need to begin accepting that being laid up for a month to heal from a brain injury is better than never being able to compete again. Just ask Kevin Pearce.