Nico Langmann from Austria was just two years old when his spinal cord was damaged in a car accident. Now, a forward-thinking young man, this active, fun-loving sportsman opens up about his fighting spirit, hand-eye co-ordination and lifelong dreams.
"I can’t remember all that much of the accident because I was still so small”, Nico Langmann says, now 18. What he knows about that fateful night in February 1999, he knows because others have told him.
Nico was not yet two: “Mum was driving us from Vienna to the Tyrol. It was already dark, and there was heavy snow. A novice driver had crashed into a safety barrier, but not switched on his hazard lights.”
The crashed car was on the road in the dark.
“When we came up on the car, Mum tried to avoid it, but we went into a spin in the icy conditions. There was a parked bus in the opposite lane; the driver had stopped to help the guy who’d had the accident.”
The young family’s car ploughed into the stationary bus.
“Apparently, there didn’t seem to be too much wrong with us. At least not at first”, he says. Nico’s mother had broken her leg, and his brother had damaged his ankle. “The impact of the crash broke my car seat,” Nico continues, ‘but at hospital, they only diagnosed a broken thigh”.
Nothing was as it seemed
He was given splints, which is standard with small children. But then came the shock.
“When the splints were removed two months later, my mother noticed that I wasn’t moving my legs.” They later discovered that the impact in the car had pulled Nico’s vertebrae apart. Initially, the doctors hadn’t seen any fractures. Internal bleeding had damaged his spinal cord. It slowly became clear just how seriously injured he really was.
“The doctors were of the view that there was nothing you could do for the spinal cord. I was paralysed from the eighth thoracic vertebra down.”
Fighting for movement
“I was prescribed rehab,” he says, “but all the rehabilitation centres declined to treat me. They simply weren’t set up to treat someone of my age.”
Nico’s mother quit her job to look after him full-time. “I think it was worst for her because she was behind the wheel.”
Shortly after his diagnosis, when he was only three, they heard of a special rehabilitation centre for children in Russia, so he and his mother moved there for a year. It was a long way away, especially for his family, who visited as often as possible, but the distance was worth it.
“The centre’s philosophy was not just to learn to cope with the disability, but to work with it, to thrive from it. The more barriers there were, the better. It was pretty extreme.”
Nico discovered tennis when he was eight. He wanted to join in when he saw his father and brother playing the game. “I enjoyed it straight away, but to start with I could only hit about every seventh ball,” he says with a laugh.
And then things started moving very quickly. “We made enquiries with a coach, I was given an induction and I started going to training camps with other players where I learnt quickly the challenges of wheelchair tennis.
“You’ve got to be really fast and be in the perfect position to strike the ball. Combining movement and hitting the ball is hard. There’s a lot of training involved,” he admits.
In fact Nico trains twice a day, and he flies to tournaments all over the world. “My father and I organise all that between us. I’ve already been to South Africa this year and soon I head off to the States. I’ve got great sponsors supporting me.” Nico is currently number three in the junior world rankings and number 55 in the seniors.
Nico recently finished school with good exam results and will use the year ahead to prepare for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. “There are some American universities which grant scholarships for wheelchair tennis. That would be a dream come true, obviously,” says the Vienna native.
The Wings for Life World Run was also a sporting highlight. “In 2015, I covered 36 kilometres in Lower Austria, which made me the second-best wheelchair user globally.”
His future looks bright, but there are still everyday barriers to overcome. “I noticed it when I wanted to celebrate leaving school. The one place some friends and I wanted to go wouldn’t allow me in because of the fire regulations.” It’s at times like these that Nico feels the full brunt of his disability.
“In contrast to many other people with the same condition, though, all my organs, such as the bowel and bladder, work fine. I lead a pretty normal life and I’m happy,” says Nico, of the consequences of an accident he can no longer remember. “But one day it would be pretty great to feel my toes, stand up and put one foot in front of the other.”