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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Oh, how he could fly, his limber legs powering the wheels of his bicycle so deftly it seemed at any moment he might rise from the road.
Every day, Nathan Barkocy trained on his bike, flying up hills and mountains and covering 50 to 100 miles or more, speeding onward to his life’s dream of turning pro.
At 16, he was well on his way, already the youngest winner in his category of the grueling Tour of the Gila in southwestern New Mexico and coming in 10th in the road race portion of the 2015 Junior Nationals in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
He made it look easy.
“I was really good at hills,” he says, recalling rides that took him from his home near Wyoming and Constitution NE to Placitas, about 30 miles away, then up along the back road high into the Sandias, an ascent of more than 4,000 feet. “I loved the hills. You will not hear many cyclists saying that.”
There is that past tense in Barkocy’s comment. Was really good. Loved. The dream of going pro ended when his life nearly ended in January, when he was struck by a car on Coors near Los Padillas SW as he, TLC Development cycling teammate Adam Brugge and coach Stephen Williamson headed south toward Belen on a 50-mile training ride.
(Driver Marlin Austin, 56, was indicted in June on a careless driving charge, punishable by up to 90 days in jail. Alcohol was not believed to have been a factor in the crash. Trial is scheduled in January.)
Williamson suffered injuries to his hip and shoulder in the crash. Brugge, 17, was uninjured.
But Barkocy flew, 20 feet in the air, hip and shoulder shattering windshield, bike and bone ripping away the bumper, head slamming back to earth.
He was out, unconscious. He remained in a coma for nearly two weeks, his family and friends wondering if he would ever come out of it – and if he did, if he would be the same smart, funny, driven athlete he had been, if the Nathan they had known was forever past tense.
Now, nearly seven months later, days before fall semester begins in schools across Albuquerque, including St. Pius X High School, where Barkocy was a sophomore when the crash took him out, they have their answer: He is that Nathan they knew, but different, maybe even better.
“I’m still struggling,” he says, his voice bright and easy. “But I feel like I am coming back to me.”
Barkocy – the youngest of two children born to Marybeth Barkocy, an assistant professor of physical therapy, and Kevin Barkocy, a Catholic church deacon – had been unable to sit or roll over by himself once he regained consciousness, his mother says. He was paralyzed on the left side. His memory was impaired, and he could not remember the crash.
Of that he is thankful.
“My teammate says he has flashbacks at night, stresses out and can’t sleep,” Barkocy says. “My coach says the sound of a car driving behind him freaks him out so much he can’t ride.”
Barkocy spent two months at Craig Hospital in Denver, a neuro-rehabilitation facility recognized for its work with traumatic brain injury. In mid-April, he returned to Albuquerque, where he continued to receive physical, occupational and speech therapy at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, suffering a setback when he underwent brain surgery in June to repair an aneurysm.
Physical therapy, he says, was the “fun” part. His physical moves are nearly normal now. What has not been as fun is the cognitive rehab.
“I forget things,” he says. “My memory is not as good.”
With the help of tutors and special school accommodations this summer, the one-time honor student has struggled to complete the spring semester he missed.
“It’s hard to do trigonometry when you don’t remember how you did it the day before,” he says.
The road to his recovery remains a long one. He is not left alone, not allowed to ride his bike on his own yet. He tires easily. He is coming to terms with the end of his pro cyclist dream.
“It’s kind of a bummer,” he says. “Cycling was the thing that excited me most. But I will never ride on the road ever again in my life. I don’t trust drivers, and I don’t trust the road.”
But where one road ends, there is another on the horizon. Where one dream ends, another begins.
“This accident has kind of been a blessing,” he says. “It has given me a lot of options and opportunities that I don’t think I would have had before. I think I’ve been given a chance to change more lives than I ever could as a cyclist.”
Barkocy now gives talks to driver’s ed classes about attentive driving. He has spoken to the St. Pius student body. His message: Make life worth living, because you never know when it will be cut short, as his almost was.
His new dream is to become a physical therapist like the ones who helped get him back on his feet. And he hopes someday to ride his bike on his own, not as a professional but as a young man who still loves to fly on wheels – but now on a bike trail.
Come Friday, Barkocy will be back in school as a junior, walking, talking, joking, sharing what he has lost but focusing on all that he has gained.
“I’m just so grateful for everything,” he says. “I’m just blessed to be alive.”
Anybody who knows him surely feels just as blessed.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.