For the past month I have been trying without success to find the time to join the makers of the new documentary, "Crash Reel," at one of their premiere screenings. It is a movie I have been very eager to see for a number of reasons. Finally, over the weekend, I was able watch the film, which airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 p.m. EDT.
I am so glad I finally was able to see the film. Not only did it exceed all of my expectations, but, it evoked in me a mix of both wonderful and sad memories from my past.
The film is chock full of very powerful life lessons, many that I think will be obvious ones parents will want to share with children, but many they don't even know they need to share.
For those of you who don't already know about the movie, "Crash Reel" is about former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his inspiring recovery from a severe, life-threatening traumatic brain injury (TBI) sustained in a crash before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
On one level, it is a straightforward tale about how, working with a team of medical and psychological caregivers, Pearce has been able to recover from his injuries.
But "Crash Reel" is about so much more.
It is about the risks too many young athletes feel they have to take to succeed in their sport.
It is a film about the importance of family and having faith in each other, and how each can play a pivotal role in the journeys of the others, in both sickness and in health.
It is about what we can learn from people we might be tempted to think are the ones least likely to be in a position to give sage advice: in this case, one of Kevin's three brothers, David, who was born with Down Syndrome. It made me wish that David had been around to help my family after one of my sons suffered a bad concussion while snowboarding.
I remember when Kevin was injured during a training run while preparing for the Olympic qualifying trials just weeks before the 2010 Olympics, when he caught an edge and slammed face first on the halfpipe structure while attempting to do a "double cork," a twisting double back flip trick. I recall listening to the morning news the day after his accident with disbelief and profound sadness.
I had been rooting for Kevin since he beat the supposedly "unbeatable" phenomenon Shaun White, and was hoping to see him standing on the podium in Vancouver, perhaps standing on a step above his onetime close friend, Shaun.
As some of you know from my previous blogs, I have always been a huge Winter Olympics fan, no doubt due to the fact that my dad lived on Stratton Mountain in Vermont, where I grew up as a "mountain rat."
I was at Stratton when my step-brother and Jake Burton Carpenter and their friends developed the first snowboards in the 1970s and watched as they rocketed down the mountain at breakneck speeds and launched for what were, at the time, heart stopping jumps off of four-foot ramps.
When I made plans to to attend the 2010 Olympics, I purchased tickets early to make sure that I was there to watch the snowboarding events and the halfpipe finals, just as I had done for the men's and women's finals of the Snowboarding GS at Park City, Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Snowboarding is one of my favorite Olympic sports to watch and my friends and I were sure Kevin would be on the podium.
The flip that Kevin was trying when he was injured had not yet been mastered. It was one that many of the men who would be competing at the Olympic trials were trying to add to their routines. His fall, like so many catastrophic falls or crashes, did not look to be as horrific as it turned out to be. (Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at the Daytona 500 a few years back comes to mind) Sadly, some of the falls that look like the athlete will jump to their feet end up killing or severely injuring them.
As someone who has been covering the sport-related concussion beat for the past 13 years, I wondered at the time whether Kevin was still recovering from a previous head injury days or weeks that made his injury worse. I have since learned that indeed he may have had a concussion just three weeks prior. That injury, coupled with the mental and physical pressure he was under in his attempt to beat Shaun White and others may have made a bad situation even worse. We now know that when athletes are tired they are more prone to accidents.
The valuable lesson from "Crash Reel" for parents is to never assume one head injury has healed before letting your child resume a sports activity. Many times we see a snow sport athlete take a hit to the head or body that creates a whiplash effect, and don't think much of it until we learn they indeed have been severely injured. This lesson was brought home to me after film star Natasha Richardson fell during a ski lesson ten months before Kevin's accident and ended up dying a short time later from a brain bleed. It was also brought home when professional freestyle skier Sarah Burke took a fall on the same half pipe at Park City, Utah on which Kevin was injured.
Perhaps one of the most thought provoking statements for parents in the movie came from Kevin's father toward the end of the film:
"After the accident I felt very responsible, it was all the money involved, in all the sponsorships, it wasn't just Kevin. There should be limits I think just like there is in car racing. Finally they had to limit the sizes of the engines in the racing cars because people were killing themselves. It's the same in many halfpipes. If you make the rails higher, which makes it more dramatic for the spectators and the television and the media, the athlete will go, I mean he will push it to the limits. It's in the athletes make-up. I felt at some level we were all to blame."
These are tough issues I work with every day, mostly with football parents.
We finish watching "Crash Reel" knowing that Kevin and his family have emerged from his near tragedy stronger than ever. We hear him talking with snowboarder Trevor Rhoda, who has sustained two TBIs and now has a serious brain injury, in the aftermath of which he has been mean to his mom.
Kevin tells Trevor that, "Being mean to them [moms] is not helping." And, as he leaves Trevor and walks down a long path with his own mom, Kevin tells her, "This has changed my life. Now I can help change other people's lives." And we know that Kevin will do just that, and that "Crash Reel" and his advocacy on traumatic brain injury will have a great impact on the young athletes of this country..
The only thing that I wish had been included in the movie was a scene showing all of the people who were at Cascade Mountain the day two Americans placed in the top three at the finals during the Olympics. Shaun White won the gold and Scotty Lago won the bronze. To his credit, White absolutely nailed his first run; we all know that things didn't end so well for Lago, who was sent home early.
What I wanted the viewers to see was all of the signs people were holding that read, "I Ride For Kevin." Each of us standing along the run that day were thinking of Kevin as he lay in a hospital bed.
As we all begin to gear up to purchase tickets to Sochi for the next Olympics in February of 2014, I wonder how all of the top USA hopefuls are doing practicing at the Mount Hood superpipe. The height of the walls has now been capped at 22 feet. For me, I won't be watching any more snowboard events until, for safety's sake, the rails are lowered just a bit, maybe not all the way back to the four feet that I once thought was too high, but low enough to reduce the risk of injury of the kind that Kevin suffered in attempting a move that simply pushed the envelope too far and involved too much risk.
If you do nothing else with your kids this summer I suggest you watch "Crash Reel" with them, and, if you add it to your DVR or TIVO queue, I bet they will watch it over and over with their friends.
Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of "Home Team Advantage:The Critical Role of Mothers In Youth Sports," and Producer and Director of the new high school football concussion documentary, "The Smartest Team."