Mar 07 Landeros Has Eyes on Vancouver

July 28, 2009, 1:07 p.m. (ET)

Nikko Landeros was scared.

Lying in a hospital bed after losing his legs in a 2007 car accident, one dark thought chasing another, the Colorado high school junior was beset by worries about the future.

Landeros knew he had to learn to sit-up, crawl, walk and run - for the second time.

But could he take the next step?

"I love being able to play a sport,'' he said. "It's one of the best things, I think, being able to play in the big games.''

For the first time since he woke up and learned his legs were gone, Landeros is back in the game, in a big way.

At last week's national tryout camp in Rochester, NY, the 20-year-old forward learned that he'd been named to the 2009-10 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, a remarkable achievement considering that he made his debut in December.

"It still hasn't hit me. It won't hit me until I put my jersey on. When I see USA on the front, that's when it's going to be crazy,'' he said.

Landeros is the only newcomer on a roster of 18 that includes 13 Paralympians, which could leave him vulnerable when coaches cut three players before the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

But he's determined to make his case at four training camps, two international tournaments and a pair of exhibition series against Canada during the lead-up to Vancouver.

 "It's going to be a big step,'' he said. "But if I keep working hard and doing my best ...

"When you're an Olympian, you have to work out every day; you're supposed to be the best. You're playing for everybody in the country. You're playing for the troops.''

So determined was Landeros to make the squad that he moved to Buffalo to train and learn from national team members. In Berthoud he worked on his shot in his parent's basement and practiced every day at a nearby rink, picking up sled hockey as quickly as he had stand-up hockey as a boy.

 "His ability to compete at this level in such a short time is probably due to the fact he's an athlete,'' said Ray Maluta, head coach of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.

"He's got great athleticism. He's big and strong and loves to compete. There are players who have been playing three or four years now who aren't at Nikko's ability.

"If he improves the same pace he has already, I think his chances are very good (of surviving the cut).''

Landeros was a star nose guard on Berthoud High School's football team and a varsity wrestler, a natural jock who strolled down the school's hallways with an air of invincibility. His best games still seemed on the horizon when he and his friend and wrestling teammate, Tyler Carron, left a school dance in Carron's Isuzu Trooper. Minutes later, after they turned onto a narrow country road, a flat tire forced them to stop where snow had left room on the shoulder.

Within seconds a classmate's SUV smashed into them, pinning them against the Trooper, which swung 180 degrees and came to a stop 75 feet away. Landeros and Carron were tossed into the air and landed in the northbound lane, their lives changed forever in a moment they never saw coming.

Landeros remained conscious throughout the ordeal, developed pneumonia and a severe fever in the hospital, and underwent nine operations in all. At one point, doctors opened up his left arm, raising fears he might become a triple amputee.

But his trial was only beginning.

One night, Landeros's father, Jairo, was awakened by his son's screams. "He was crying like a baby,'' Jairo said. "I think he fell off the bed and didn't know what to do because he couldn't use his arms. It was such a weird thing to see an 18-year-old start crying in the middle of the night. I picked him up and brought him back to bed.''

But less than three months after the accident, Landeros and Carron were back in their natural environment, a sweaty wrestling room, rebuilding their bodies and lives from the mat up.

 "I never expected this to happen to me. No one ever does,'' he said.

"But you don't want to feel sorry for yourself. You want to find something to do - and that something was wrestling. Tyler and I just picked it up and rolled with it.

"I don't know if I'd really be where I am right now if it hadn't been for the accident. I'm playing for the U.S. Sled Hockey Team now. Maybe it was supposed to happen. Maybe it wasn't.''

When a group of U.S. Paralympians visited Berthoud High, Landeros hung around to talk about sled hockey, a fan favorite since it was introduced as a medal sport in the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

"I saw him at a camp with a bunch of youngsters, with maybe five or six players his size and ability,'' Maluta said. "He sorted through what he could with certain people, and what he couldn't do.

"He figured out 'I can bang this guy because he's my size and he's trying out for the same team.' And he'd lay off another kid, because he didn't want to injure him. I saw him teaching other youngsters, I saw him competing hard against the better players.

"I think with his character and commitment he's going to push himself to be as good a player as he can be. Who knows were that will end up.''

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