What’s the difference between a successful person and a role model?
He is the most successful competitive snowboarder of all time, but is Shaun White also a role model or the Greatest of all Time (GOAT)?
If we look at the media reporting on the Olympics, it seems as if the entire sport depends on one person. That person is Shaun White. But underneath the surface, there are countless members of the snowboarding community who heavily disagree on that.
Nobody questions the grandiosity of the man who pushed the limits of this sport and became the most well-known snowboarder in history.
But there is one story that often gets overseen: the story of Kevin Pearce and Shaun White. The story of a friendship that took an ugly turn and created a lot of suffering.
Snowboarding is a dangerous sport. These athletes are literally putting their lives at risk. But what happens if something goes wrong?
The risk of getting seriously injured overshadows every competition and training session. This is probably one of the reasons why these athletes are more than just rivals—they are a community. Just look at the women’s slopestyle final and how they celebrated each other.
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When snowboarding became part of the Olympics in 2006, it literally changed the sport forever. At that time, there were several athletes competing for glory. There were two different approaches: community versus one-man show.
There was the so-called “Frends crew” (there is no “I” in friends) and a young athlete who decided to do his own thing.
At that time, the Frends crew had two riders with realistic chances of winning a gold medal: Kevin Pearce and Danny Davis. They were competing with their former friend Shaun White.
Shaun White already had a lot of sponsors at that time. These sponsors built a so-called foam pit that would enable White to practice his new tricks without the risk of getting injured. But he wasn’t willing to share with his teammates.
And then everything changed on December 31, 2009.
Kevin Pearce almost died in a tragic accident while practicing for the upcoming Olympics. Everyone in the snowboarding community was shocked.
Pearce was moved out of critical care two months later, and nobody knew if he’d ever be able to walk, speak, or have a life again.
Everyone was supporting Pearce and his family. Almost all riders claimed “I Ride for Kevin” that season. Pearce never got back into professional snowboarding, but he became a role model.
Pearce went through a long and painful recovery that led him to become an activist. It was a wake-up call that inspired him to start a foundation to help victims of traumatic brain injuries.
In 2013, the documentary “The Crash Reel” came out and told the story of Pearce’s recovery. We see him talking with his brother David, who has Down syndrome, about his desire to make a comeback. David begs him not to put his life at risk again.
After a lot of emotional discussions, Pearce insists on trying but then realizes that he is physically not able to get back to the point before the injury. He gives in and announces the end of his career.
Seeing the Pearce family deal with this tragedy deeply impressed me and many others who watched this documentary. Instead of being a competitive athlete, Pearce became a motivational speaker who creates awareness for traumatic brain injuries.
His activism is not limited to snowboarding; he wants to share his story to inspire athletes of all sports to wear helmets. Who knows how many lives he already saved by doing that?
But the world of competitive snowboarding kept going. Shaun White became the poster boy of the sport. He won almost every competition and seemed to be invincible at that time. I respect his achievements as an athlete, but I am also disappointed.
Why didn’t he use his fame to help the cause of his former rival and friend?
That’s what separates a successful person from a role model. White wasn’t even available for an appearance in “The Crash Reel.” Maybe he doesn’t want to talk about it, but there is also the possibility that he is aware of his role in this story.
I wish Mr. White all the best to win his fourth gold medal, but there is one thing he needs to do to become the GOAT of snowboarding—he needs to address this and reach out to his former teammate.
It’s never too late to make things right.
I will be watching the men’s halfpipe finals tonight. I am looking forward to it.
But my heart is with the man who could have become the GOAT. I will think of the man who just became a father, lives a plant-based life, and inspires kids to wear helmets.
I admire the strength, vulnerability, and resilience of a man who almost died doing what he loves. I have tears in my eyes looking for images of Pearce before the accident—and I am sure I am not the only one in snowboarding who feels this way.
Because all of that combined makes Kevin Pearce a role model—and I hope the most successful man in the business will finally acknowledge that.
Here is the trailer of “The Crash Reel,” and if you feel like supporting Pearce, please make sure to follow him on social media.