© David Robinson

Paralysed at two

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Nico Langmann from Austria was just a small child when his spinal cord was damaged in a car accident. Now, several years later, this active, fun-loving sportsman is sitting in front of us to talk about his fighting spirit, hand-eye co-ordination and lifelong dreams.

"I can’t remember all that much because I was still so small,” Nico Langmann says right at the start of our interview. Now 18, he only knows the precise course of events from what others have told him. It happened in February 1999. Nico was not yet two when his mother was out in the car with him and his older brother. “We were driving from Vienna to the Tyrol. It was already dark and there was heavy snow.” The difficult driving conditions were a concern even for experienced drivers. “On that same stretch of road, a novice driver had crashed into a safety barrier.” The driver failed to switch on his hazard lights. His car was there on the road in the dark. “Then we drove up to the scene of the accident a short while later,” Nico explains. His mother tried to avoid the car, but went into a spin in the icy conditions. “There was a bus in the opposite lane. The driver had parked because he wanted to help the driver who’d had the accident.” The young family’s car ploughed into the stationary bus. “There didn’t seem to be too much wrong. 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. In the hospital they only diagnosed a broken thigh.

Nothing was as it seemed 
He was given splints, which is standard with small children. And then came the shock. “When the supports 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 the youngster’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 the child really was. “The doctors were of the view that there was nothing you could do for the spinal cord. I was paralysed from Th8-9, ie from the eighth thoracic vertebra down.”

Fighting for Movement
“I was prescribed rehab,” he says. But it was difficult because all the rehabilitation centres declined to treat Nico. “They simply weren’t set up to treat someone of my age.” Nico’s mother quit her job in order to look after him full-time. “I think it was worst for her because she was behind the wheel.” Shortly after his diagnosis, he and his mother moved to Russia for a year. There was a special rehabilitation centre for children there. I was only three, so the family 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 got his first wheelchair when he was four, but he didn’t particularly stand out at his integrated kindergarten. His father became very interested in medicine and the latest forms of treatment for his paraplegic son. “Obviously he wanted to try everything to get me walking again,” Nico says, thinking back to those tough times in his childhood. “While other kids were hanging out with friends or pursuing their hobbies, I was having treatment, often for up to six hours a day.” It was at school that Nico first experienced something akin to marginalisation due to his disability. “We’d agreed two years in advance that I’d go to the same primary school as my brother. But not long before school was due to start, they informed us that enough able-bodied children had applied for places and they wouldn’t be able to take me. So then I felt that I was different.” He switched to an integrated school instead.

Ace Impact 
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, even though to start with I could only hit about every seventh ball,” he says with a laugh as he looks back. 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.” He quickly understood 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 is still training – 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 3 in the junior world rankings and number 55 in the seniors.

Clear-cut Ambitions
He 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 made 36 kilometres in Lower Austria, which made me the second-best wheelchair user.” There are still everyday barriers to overcome. “I noticed it when I wanted to celebrate leaving school. Some friends and I wanted to go into one particular place, but I wasn’t allowed 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, 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.”

Here you can donate to Wings for Life. 100% of all donations will go towards funding cutting-edge spinal cord research projects to help find a cure for spinal cord injury.