Post-injury, racer Alex Zanardi is going for gold in another sport
The trophy cabinet at Alex Zanardi's Italian home is testament to the success of his illustrious motor-racing career. Two Champ Car championship trophies stand there proudly along with 15 other pieces of silverware from his race wins in the series.
But the 45-year-old will forever be remembered for the cruel way in which his professional career was brought to an abrupt end and the crash that ripped off both of his legs and left him fighting for life on a race track in Germany more than a decade ago.
On course for victory at the Lausitzring, Zanardi was returning to the track from a routine pit stop when he lost control of his car and spun into the path of Patrick Carpentier.
Carpentier was just able to avoid him but Alex Tagliani was unable to do so and smashed into Zanardi's Mo Nunn Racing car at 274kph, instantly severing the nose of the vehicle, along with Zanardi's legs.
The fact that he is still alive is something of a miracle, a testament to the on-track medical staff that fought to save his life and the determination of Zanardi himself, a determination that has become an integral part of his remarkable ongoing career since the accident.
He is about as refreshing a sportsman as you will ever meet, disarmingly honest and, remarkably, without regret.
"I knew it was something that could happen and, so what? It happened," he says, matter-of-factly, "and I'm not going to allow it to affect my future unless I let it, and I won't do that."
Zanardi remembers nothing of the accident - his first memory is coming out of a coma in hospital in Berlin a week after the crash.
"When I woke up, I realised that I had a vague idea of what I went through and how close I was to losing my life, of losing everything I had," he recalls. "That was enough for me. Basically, from that point, everything was behind me. That first day was hard but I knew every day after that would be better, and that was the reason why I've had such a positive attitude."
Zanardi's survival effectively defied science. For nearly an hour, he survived on a single litre of blood, his heart stopped seven times and he had to be resuscitated each time.
He relives the accident, which he watched for the first time a week after coming out of a coma, as though he is retelling an amusing anecdote from the day.
"I'm sorry to say I didn't see any tunnel or any light at the end of it," he says, laughing. "Of the accident, I remember coming out the pit lane with cruise control, letting go and then losing control of the car. I remember my hands frantically operating the steering wheel, trying to recover control of the car, then this big, big noise and nothing more."
He readily admits the recovery process and learning to walk again on prosthetic limbs was an arduous one but, being Zanardi, every step was done with a smile.
The first time he had the prosthetic limbs attached, they were set far too long and the normally diminutive Zanardi was suddenly a giant.
"I remember the doctor turning to his colleagues and saying 'we need to shorten this man' and we were all in hysterics," he adds.
But he did indeed learn to walk again and, even more amazingly, to race again, entering the World Touring Car Championships in a specially adapted BMW in 2005.
"People said it was a risk because I was too vulnerable but I was already broken and, if my legs get damaged this time, they're much easier to fix - all they need is a small screw," he says, joking.
And Zanardi was not just making up the numbers on the grid. In five seasons in the WTCC, he boasted four race wins and a string of consistent podium finishes. But, for now, his motorsport career is on hold as he prepares to go for gold at next year's Paralympics in London in the sport of handcycling.
He finished his second full season in the sport last year at number one in the world rankings and with victory in the discipline at November's New York Marathon. He is confident of a Paralympic medal next year, although that had never been the intention.
"I initially took it up as a way of keeping fit and I discovered that the distance between myself and those top athletes was huge, so it seemed an exciting prospect," he says. "So I gave up on motor racing to see if I could close the gap. Had it been easy, I probably wouldn't have tried.
"The idea in my head was that maybe I could head to London and race the guys at the Paralympics and that's going to happen. The idea that I could actually get a medal is well, wow ..."
Should the unthinkable happen and he wins gold next year, where would that rank against his greatest motorsport wins?
"If I could bring back a medal from London, it would be fantastic. Any medal would be of great value and would go straight next to my motor-racing trophies from Laguna Seca and Cleveland.
"Those wins were more special than my title because the titles just came through consistency but those wins were more magical because I was brave enough with the car I had to try harder than the other people. A medal in London would be equally magical."
Zanardi will compete in two events at the Paralympics - the 60km road race and also a 20km time trial, and he relishes both events.
"I love the racing aspect but also the time trial is fun, too," he says. "In America, they talk about turning from go to woe if you go out too hard at the start, so you need to get the pace right and ensure you're not using up the last of your oxygen until the finishing line. But it's such a harsh thing as you can give everything but just lose by 1.5 seconds to a rival."
Although ranked world number one, he has yet to win a major ranking race (the New York Marathon was not part of last year's World Cup series), although that fact doesn't bother Zanardi.
"The way I think is that if I only have two golds available in my career then I don't want to waste them - I'm happy to wait for them in London," he says.
Zanardi laughs at the idea of being part of the Paralympic showcase in London. Growing up, his aspirations were always sporting but his memories of the Summer Olympics/Paralympics are virtually nil.
And once the Paralympics draw to a close, he plans once more to return to his motorsport passion and further racing forays, although he has yet to decide in what capacity.
"The first love, the passion, the addiction that burns is from motor racing and I can't just switch it off," he says. "But I'm just happy in whatever I do really. I feel happy to have a second chance; really, it's incredible that I'm still here."
When Zanardi first had his prosthetic legs attached his son, Niccolo, was in awe of his father, rather than fearful of his plight. "He thought I was a superhero, one of a kind," he chuckles.
Such a description is perfectly apt to describe the Italian. A Paralympic gold would only add to his superhero status.
Updated: January 13, 2012 04:00 AM