LAFAYETTE, Colo. — Nikko Landeros squeezed his eyes closed just long enough to let his thoughts drift back to that frigid January night when he lost both of his legs.
Then, after wiping the sweat from his forehead following a recent sled-hockey practice, he chatted candidly about the auto accident that altered his life nearly three years ago. It's a story he's retold countless times and never shies away from telling again.
To him, talking about that night – and hearing others who were there recount it – is cathartic and gives him power over a horrible mishap.
"I want to know everything," said the 20-year-old Landeros, who recently made the U.S. sled hockey squad that will compete at the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver in March.
For the most part, he can recall every detail of the accident that happened after he and his best friend, Tyler Carron, got out to change a flat tire on a dark rural road as they returned from a high school dance.
A couple friends stayed inside the SUV as Landeros and Carron, then wrestlers at Berthoud (Colo.) High School, went to grab the tire jack out of the back.
The teenager driving the other car never saw them on the side of the road in northern Colorado.
There was no sudden flash of headlights, no warning. Just the collision.
The next thing Landeros knew, he was pinned between the two vehicles and then thrown into the middle of the road.
He tried to get up but couldn't. He attempted to move his legs, nothing.
About then, a thought hit him: Where's Tyler? Where's his best friend?
There, on the other side of the road, was Carron. He wasn't moving. He was in tough shape, too.
Let him make it, Landeros thought.
Carron would. They both would.
Ever since, they've helped each other through an accident that cost each of them their legs just above their knees. They were there for each other following all the operations. They pushed each other through rehab, challenged each other as they learned to walk on prosthetic legs.
Best friends became even more bonded.
"We knew exactly what the other was feeling," Landeros explained. "If one was in a bad mood, the other knew what was going on."
Once an athlete, though, always an athlete.
They were looking for some type of outlet to help them mend both mind and body following the accident.
Enter sled hockey.
Landeros played hockey as a kid, so it didn't take him long to pick up the fast-paced sport. He earned a roster spot on the Paralympic team, while Carron made the junior national squad.
And to think, they didn't even like the sport at first.
Soon after their accident, Landeros and Carron were invited to the rink to try the sport. The game is similar to regular hockey, only that players propel themselves up and down the ice by using spikes on the ends of scaled-down hockey sticks held in each hand. The contest is played on Olympic-sized ice and features plenty of checks and hard hits.
That right there should've appealed to them.
Landeros and Carron played defense on the football team at Berthoud High. They also wrestled, with Carron serving as one of the captains in what was his senior year. He was highly ranked in his weight class that season.
Then came the accident.
Carron doesn't remember anything from that night of Jan. 15, 2007.
Landeros recalls everything.
Like lying in the road, a wave of panic gripping him as he couldn't scramble up. One of his legs was gone and the other awkwardly pinned underneath him.
"Everything ran through my head: Am I going to die now? What's going to happen to me?" Landeros said.
Landeros kept hearing updates on Carron, how he wasn't moving after being thrown from the impact. Carron also was missing one of his legs.
By then, Landeros couldn't comprehend much. He was in shock and losing lots of blood.
But quick-thinking friends, who arrived on the scene a short time later, used belts as tourniquets to try to stop the bleeding. The friends who were inside the car placed jackets on the boys to keep them warm until emergency help arrived.
The two were taken by helicopter to a hospital where doctors tried to save their legs.
They couldn't be saved.
In all, Carron went through more than a dozen surgeries on his legs, Landeros enduring a few more.
Then came another big hurdle – picking up the pieces of their lives again as double leg amputees. Finding motivation was tricky.
"At first, I didn't really care, just wanted to have fun," said Landeros, who was a junior at the time of the accident. "You're pretty much dead and came back. Might as well enjoy life for a couple of months. I did that. ... After a month or two, I was like, 'Man, I need to kick it in and find something to do.'"
So he decided to give sled hockey another try. Naturally, he persuaded Carron to come along, too.
This time, they loved it.
Why the change?
"The adrenaline, the competitiveness," said Carron, who turns 21 in May. "It's just a cool sport."
In no time, they picked up the intricacies of sled hockey, the athlete in them shining again.
Landeros is a dominating defenseman who can fly down the ice. Carron's best asset also is quickness, along with an ability to adeptly maneuver on a sled that sits on top of two rather thin blades.
They were invited to try out for the U.S. national team over the summer, elated at the opportunity. They weren't expecting much, being so new to the sport.
But U.S. coach Ray Maluta instantly liked what he saw. He selected Landeros to the team, and thinks Carron has the talent to make the squad for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
"I love what Nikko brings to the rink every day. He's a very determined," said Maluta, whose team is a gold-medal favorite, along with Canada. "With Tyler's tremendous attitude and athleticism, he will come around and be a great sled hockey player also."
Landeros recently moved to Buffalo, N.Y., to train with his teammates, while Carron stayed behind to play for his club sled-hockey team and work.
With Landeros home for the holidays, though, the two found a chance to organize a pickup game last weekend.
Just like old times.
"We've been there for each other the whole way," Carron said. "This is fun. I'm glad I have a buddy to do this with. It would be kind of boring by myself."
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