Italian racecar driver Alex Zanardi lost his legs in an Indycar crash in 2001
This year, he won two handcycling gold medals at the London Paralympic Games
Recovering from his injuries and mastering a new sport is a matter of taking things step by step, he says.
For Alex Zanardi, losing both legs in a life-threatening crash was only the beginning of a new chapter.
This year, the Italian racing driver, who has competed in Formula One and Indycar series, added two Paralympic gold medals and a win in the New York marathon’s handcycle division to his career highlights.
Reflecting on what lies next, he says: “I have to tell you that the possibilities are not lacking in my life, and this is something for which I feel very lucky.”
At school, Zanardi didn’t compete in sports much, “because I was really fat as a kid.”
After his sister was killed in a car crash his parents were eager to keep him off the road – but they did allow Zanardi to race go-karts.
“I clearly remember that first day on the go-kart being the best in my life,” he says.
Zanardi first raced in Formula One in 1992. After a contract with Lotus ended, he switched to Indycar racing, ultimately winning two championships.
In America he became a popular driver, making a signature move out of performing post-race donuts on the track, and earning the nickname Latka (a reference to a character in ’80s sitcom “Taxi”).
In 2001, Zanardi was leading in a Champ car race at Lausitzring in Germany, with 13 laps to go. But as he emerged from a final pit-stop, something went wrong.
“I lost control of the car in the acceleration lane, spun around and basically ended up … a sitting duck in the middle of the racing line.”
Zanardi awaited his fate as his fellow drivers sped by at more than 350mph.
Struck by the second car to pass, his car – and his body – were effectively sliced in two.
The blood loss was massive. “It was like having the sink opened,” he says. “Both arteries were completely ripped apart; the amputation was immediate.”
As a racecar driver, he’d had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he would react to such a fate. “I said I would probably kill myself,” Zanardi says. “Then I found myself in this situation and that thought never went through my mind.”
“I had a clear perception that I had cheated death. I was very happy, and full of joy at being alive.”
Friends and family worried about how he would manage to get by without legs. But Zanardi says the question he asked himself on emerging from a coma was “not that much different in the wording, but technically very different.”
It was: “My question was, how the hell am I going to do all the things I have to do with no legs?”
His attitude was one of “pure curiosity.” “I knew I was going to find a way to overcome my problems,” he adds.
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Being a professional athlete served Zanardi well during his rehabilitation – he already knew that it simply takes persistence to achieve a good result.
“Having been involved in sport a long time made me learn that you cannot magically make things happen overnight. You can only do what you can each day, and take the next day to add to what you have done the previous day.”
“The method which allowed me to get out of my troubles was setting a list of priorities, as I did previously in sport, preparing a race.”
“My first goal was to try to get out of that bed, and then to get rid of all those tubes and wires that were keeping me alive. Then go on the toilet on my own and then, step-by-step – very metaphorical in my case – slowly, I got to the point of thinking about rehabilitation over a pair of prosthetic legs.”
Within a year, he had crossed all of those problems off his list.
Two years later, Zanardi returned to Lausitzring to complete his 13 laps, averaging nearly 200mph in a hand-operated car.
Three years later, he was contracted to race for BMW in the European Touring Car Championships.
Four years later, he won a World Touring Car Championship race, using his hip to work a modified brake pedal attached to a prosthetic leg, an accelerating device mounted under the steering wheel, and a clutch mechanism worked by hand. He celebrated by doing donuts on the track.
Five years later, he was back in a modified BMW Formula One car, steering with one hand and accelerating with the other.
He was again subject to the same dangers, but says “life itself is that way.” “The simple fact that we are alive and breathe means we have something to lose. In this philosophical way, I found it absolutely normal to jump back in the car and do things as I did before.
“I knew that if there was a way to connect my brain to the racing car, I would be the same driver as before.”
If anything, he says, he is now less vulnerable than before: “If I break one of my legs, it only takes a 4mm screw to fix it.”
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It was an invitation to speak at the 2007 New York marathon that first inspired Zanardi to try handcycling. “I thought, since I’m there, I may as well do the marathon,” he says.
With only a month’s preparation, he finished fourth in his division, discovering that, not only was handcycling a great way to keep fit, but it also allowed him to apply his knowledge of aerodynamics.
By 2009, he had a new goal in his sights – the London 2012 Paralympic Games. As well as physical training to prepare, Zanardi spent hours working as his own race engineer, fine-tuning his cycle until it perfectly complemented his body.
“Every athlete has different needs, because every athlete has different residual abilities … you have to modify in order to find the perfect machine for you.”
Just as a racecar driver must interpret what the instruments on his dashboard reveal, Zanardi says he also had to learn to interpret his own body’s inputs and outputs.
“There’s nothing you can do about power in a racing car, other than telling your engineers your engine doesn’t sound or feel as good as it should … here, I’m the engine. I need to be aware of what’s going on … “
A year after winning the handcycling division of the New York Marathon – completing the race in one hour, 13 minutes and 58 seconds – Zanardi won golds in both the H4 men’s road and time trial races at the Paralympics.
Victory was sweet, but being a paralympian was also fulfilling because, Zanardi says, “finally, I saw people realizing what kind of message can come out of sport in general.”
“You are surprised by the result they’re achieving, but you can’t help but think, the starting point for these guys was much further back than yours.”