From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
At first, TJ Lavin couldn't believe his eyes. On Oct. 13 in Lavin's Las Vegas backyard, fellow BMX rider Ty Pinney overshot a large dirt jump and crashed hard on the ground, rendering him comatose. His head in his hands, Lavin-an X Games gold medalist best known for hosting the Real World/Road Rules Challenge on MTV-watched helplessly as medics wheeled Pinney away. "It was one of the worst crashes I've ever seen," he says. "And that was my last memory of October."

Nine days later, Lavin, now 34, awoke in a hospital, only to discover that he had suffered his own horrific biking accident. At a Vegas BMX competition Oct. 14, one day after Pinney's fall, Lavin had crashed while attempting a mid-air combination trick called a nac nac. The accident shattered his wrist, broke his orbital bone and left him with critical head trauma, which required doctors to keep him in a medically induced coma for the next eight days to keep his brain swelling down. Lavin later learned he was just five hospital beds away from Pinney, who is still recovering in the hospital.

"My biggest fear," says Lavin of his life before the crash, "was always waking up paralyzed." Now, speaking for the first time since the accident, Lavin says his first clear memory as he emerged from a coma "was my mom telling me that my arms and my legs worked and that I could wake up."

The next several weeks are a "blur" to Lavin, who began arduous physical therapy sessions to regain his strength, learn to walk and use his rebuilt wrist. He took his first steps within 10 days of the crash and left the hospital a few days later, but his intense rehab continues several days a week. "The worst part is the patience," says Lavin. "When I first went for a walk, I couldn't go 100 yards without being in trouble. Now I can easily do more than a mile."

As for the accident, "I don't remember any of it," he says. "The whole day is gone." From what he can piece together through friends, "I was really upset because of Ty's crash. I was calling people, saying I didn't want to ride." But he did-a fateful decision that will forever bookend his 15-year BMX career, from which he'd already planned to retire, with the Oct. 14 ride slated as his last. "It would have been nice to go out with arms raised, but considering the career I chose, I guess it was supposed to end like this," he says.

Yet he's not done with extreme sports. Hoping to recover within a year, Lavin plans on racing short-course trucks next. "People might think I'm crazy," says Lavin, who began filming a new MTV show this month. "But my whole life has been to soldier on. If there's a challenge in front of me, I've just got to dig deep and buck up."