Ex-Formula One driver Alex Zanardi claims gold medal in hand cycling at the London 2012 Paralympics
He lost both his legs in a horrific crash in 2001 but continued in motorsport
Italian first tried hand cycling in 2007 and made it his new career two years later
The 45-year-old says he has made the most of the chances fate has given him
“It’s been a magical adventure, and this is a fantastic conclusion.”
Not many people get second chances in life, but Alex Zanardi is making the most of his.
In 2001 the ex-Formula One driver was at death’s door, lucky to survive a horrific accident that left him with only 30% of his blood supply. He lost both his legs – amputated at the knee – after being pulled from the wreckage of his car at a race in Germany.
Fast forward more than a decade, to another race track, and the Italian is on top of the world.
While he was never able to reach the heights of success in F1 – Zanardi never made the podium in 44 races – he is a champion Paralympian.
“I’m somebody very lucky who had a great life,” the the 45-year-old Zanardi said after winning gold in his adopted sport of hand cycling at Britain’s Brands Hatch circuit on Wednesday.
“I haven’t wasted many opportunities that fate gave me. I’ve certainly had many more opportunities than I deserved, but luckily enough I ended up making the right choices.”
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In the buildup to the London Games, Zanardi joked, with a dose of black humor, that his accident “was how I won my ticket to the 2012 Paralympics.”
Having failed to make a career in F1 after four difficult seasons, he turned to the U.S. CART series where he twice won the drivers’ title for Chip Ganassi’s team.
That earned him a return to the elite division of motorsport in 1999 with the Williams team, but again he struggled.
Drifting back to open-wheel cars, fate came calling at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz on September 15, 2001. He had worked his way up from the rear of the field to lead the race with 13 laps to go before that life-changing crash.
Given the severity of his injuries, the doctors at the scene of the accident said Zanardi should never have survived.
Remarkably just two months later, he was walking again using prosthetic legs of his own design. Another two years on, he finished the race that nearly took his life, completing the remaining 13 laps at Lausitz in a specially modified touring car.
By 2004 he was racing touring cars fulltime with the help of hand-operated brake and accelerator paddles. Zanardi even drove a modified BMW Formula One car in 2006.
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But while most motorsport stars find it difficult to give up their high-octane thrills, Zanardi did just that.
“Three years ago I decided to stop motor racing, not because I had to but because I wanted to,” he said.
“It looked stupid, because at the age of 42 to dump everything to try to pursue an objective to qualify for the Games seemed to be against all odds for a man of my age.
“It felt very crazy but it’s not the first crazy thing that I do in my life, so I guess it will not be the last.”
Zanardi replaced one adrenaline buzz with another.
He discovered hand cycling – a sport where the bikes are powered by the riders’ arms – at the 2007 New York marathon.
Invited to speak as a guest, Zanardi decided if he was going to fly all the way from Italy to the U.S. he might as well compete. Compete he did, finishing fourth after only a few weeks’ training.
He had found his new passion, competing in the 2009 world championships and then setting about qualifying for the 2012 Paralympics.
“This was the horizon,” he said, smiling as a burst of brilliant, afternoon sunshine lit up his face following his victory in the H4 classification road time trial.
“I’m very, very happy. It’s never been a sacrifice. I’ve enjoyed every day of training as much as this moment now.”
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Immediately after his win, the F1 family – including former world champions Mario Andretti and Jenson Button – took to social media sites to congratulate Zanardi.
Although he was only briefly in their ranks, he is still remembered as one of the sport’s “nice guys” and most charismatic competitors.
The golden ending to his journey came at Brands Hatch, a circuit 20 miles from London where Zanardi had previously raced in a touring car.
“With an engine pushing me I didn’t realize it was that hilly,” he said.
“It’s very, very hard but if I had to design the course for the Games this is what I would have done. It’s absolutely beautiful, it’s very hard – I guess it really suits my characteristics as an old man.”
So how does the thrill of winning a cycling race compare to the highs of motor racing?
“When you are in your twenties you just think the races are what matter the most,” Zanardi said.
“When you are in your forties you really appreciate what you do every day. Of course today is very important but I really appreciate what I did in the past.
“Day by day, it’s been magical, a magical adventure and this is a fantastic conclusion.”
It seems unlikely that a man who could not be bowed by losing both of his legs will retire from sport anytime soon.
He has already mooted a possible return at the 2016 Rio Games, but Zanardi also joked that his next plan was to add another wheel and engine to his cycle and come back to Brands Hatch.
The circuit also hosts Superbike racing and, judging by the glint in his eye, perhaps Zanardi is already weighing up a new challenge of trying out a faster form of wheeled sport.