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Road to recovery

Italian racing driver on walking again after horror crash

By Alex Zanardi for CNN

Alex Zanardi
Zanardi: "I'm racing again because I have fun and it's a passion."
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(CNN) -- I've always been the sort of racing driver who likes to stick his nose into all the technical decisions and modifications to do with setting up the car.

So after my accident it was inevitable that I took an interest in the work of the technicians at the center where I did my rehabilitation.

I'm most interested in the set-up of the prosthetic legs. You can change the position of the sockets in relation to the knee joint and the foot. There are different ways to set them up that dramatically affect your balance and the way you walk.

When I got back home, if the legs weren't comfortable I'd have to drive 500 kilometers to get them modified, so most of the time I'd just improvise.

My left leg was operated on 15 times so when I posed for the first fitting it was still quite swollen and the first prosthetic leg I had quickly became too big. Instead of going to the center, I stole some Plasticine from my son to fill the socket and covered it in plastic film.

At first it wasn't that comfortable but as the Plasticine warmed up with the heat of my skin it adapted around my leg. When I was finally happy I took the plastic film out and let it dry. Then I took it to the center and said, "Copy this."

My doctor, Claudio Costa, laughs when I turn up with these modifications. He says, "I wouldn't expect anything different from you."

I'm also interested in how the legs are constructed. Sooner or later I'd like to build my own knee joints. I have some ideas how they could be improved. After all, I've got the best test driver of all. No one who goes home everyday at five o'clock with his own legs can know what it's like.

I really only have one pair of legs that I use for everything except swimming. For that, I found a waterproof material and I got the technicians to design a new leg that basically allows me to walk as well as I do with my normal legs. They are perfectly balanced in the water and they dry in about five minutes.

I'm an incredibly optimistic person and that's been my greatest weapon in fighting this problem. My accident was in September 2001 and I was walking by Christmas that year. I was actually disappointed because I thought it would be quicker. When I first stood on a pair of prosthetic legs it was incredibly tiring and painful just taking a few steps. I thought it would be easy, like driving a car.

The loss of my legs wasn't the biggest problem after my crash. I was in such terrible pain that I barely had the energy to stay awake while my wife told me what had happened. I remember telling her, "Honey, we're going to be alright." I fell asleep already thinking about what I would be able to do with prosthetic legs. I immediately took it as a challenge.

I'm racing again because I have fun and it's a passion. But I have a bigger passion for life. The most important thing for me is that, for the last race in Dubai, I was able to get up, put my legs on, drive to the airport, jump on a plane, arrive and unload my bag from the belt and get a cab to the hotel and still have enough energy to go down to the bar and have a beer. That's the real victory.

-- Former Formula One and CART driver Alex Zanardi lost both his legs in a racing accident in 2001. This year he returned to racing in the European Touring Car Championship.

His autobiography "My Sweetest Victory" is available from Oct. 25.

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