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Kevin Pearce's snowboarding saga came full circle on Friday with the premiere of "The Crash Reel" at the Salt Lake City Gala of the Sundance Film Festival.

"Actually, the journey of the film began for me at Sundance when I was here two years ago," said filmmaker Lucy Walker. "I saw 'I ride for Kevin' stickers all over the snowboards and helmets."

That was in honor of Olympic hopeful Pearce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while practicing here just six weeks before the 2010 Winter Olympics, where he was a favorite to win a medal. The film opens with spectacular shots of his snowboarding feats, then crashes with him when he nearly dies and chronicles his difficult road to recovery.

"This is not your usual sports film," Walker said. "I don't think anyone has seen a film quite like this before."

Pearce was in a coma for weeks and spent months in rehab. He bounced into Friday's premiere looking fully recovered — and even younger than his 25 years. Sporting a tuxedo, argyle socks and sneakers, he and had a great time posing for photos with his family, Walker and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

He has recovered most of his motor skills, but he'll never compete at snowboarding again — which was difficult for him to accept. The film recounts his resistance to the idea that his competitive career ended with his injury, and how close he came to death.

Watching "The Crash Reel" was "a lot to take in," he said. "It was tough. But it's really important for me to go back and see where I was and how far I've come.''

Pearce and Walker chose the occasion to launch the #loveyourbrain campaign, an effort to spread awareness of traumatic brain injuries and promote safety.

"It's so insane now, the sports that we do, that kind of the least you can do is throw a helmet on," Pearce said.

Herbert was there to take in the film, support the effort and promote the film festival.

"It's certainly a great economic asset to our state, bringing in about $70 million a year," he said. "And it puts us on the map in a big way. For 10 days, the eyes of the world are focused on Utah and the Sundance Film Festival.

He saluted Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford as "one of our favorite adopted sons" and praised him for keeping the film festival in Utah.

"I appreciate the fact that he's kept it here," Herbert said. "It would be easy for someone of his stature to go to a more populated area, a bigger venue."

Walker, who won the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for "Wasteland" and three prizes a year ago for "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom," said it was "an emotional journey" to make the film and "a huge honor" to premiere it at Sundance.

"Particularly this being such a local story," she said. "So much of the story took place in Park City and Salt Lake City. The doctors who saved his life — they're kind of unsung heroes. His life was in their hands.

"But not every story has as happy an ending as Kevin's."

Which is the impetus behind #loveyourbrain.

"I think this movie can make a difference," Pearce said. "I don't want anyone else to go through what I went through."

Sundancing with The Tribune

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