He provided the London Paralympics with one of its defining images; a man with no legs, face flushed with joy and paracycle thrust heavenwards by one strong arm. For Alex Zanardi it was the latest chapter in an extraordinary life story and a sporting one that is still not complete.
The Italian turns 50 in the year Rio hosts the next Paralympics yet he intends to be there so buoyed was he by his experiences in London. “I was just very, very happy,” says Zanardi. “I picked up my hand cycle because I just wanted to celebrate. Behind the picture you [can] really tell the measure of the gesture, it is coming from winning such a race, from doing everything I had done in my life and finally ending up in London at the Paralympic Games.”
A former Formula One driver and twice a CART champion in the US, Zanardi lost his legs in a horrendous crash during a race in Germany in 2001. He was fortunate to be alive, let alone spending two sunny days last autumn racing around the Brands Hatch track that had featured in his previous sporting existence.
There was another part to his victory celebration last September, a more immediate one and a more defining one personally. “When I won the road race and stepped out of my cycle I had another ‘Zanardi’ moment. Kissing the asphalt,” says Zanardi, whose exploits in London have seem him shortlisted alongside David Weir for the Laureus World Sports Awards.
“As soon as I touched the asphalt with my lips it was like touching uncovered wire, you get the electricity. It was something unexpected. The warm asphalt – it set off a lot of images, moments of my life. I saw myself as a little kid doing my first laps in a go-kart, my dad next to me because he was my mechanic. My first race wins, the difficult moments, winning pole position at Brands Hatch in 1991, getting to F1 then losing my ride. Then more difficult moments with my accident, the recovery. All that happened in two seconds. It was an incredible, intense moment. Such an injection of joy, of nostalgia as well. For everything I’ve done in my life, the asphalt has been like an element, a [source of] consistency.”
After the accident – his car, and Zanardi himself, was sliced in two near the end of a CART race in Lausitz in east Germany – the road to recovery was a long one. “It took me 48 days to leave the hospital as I had 16 operations of four hours long,” he said.
Some “dark days” followed as he learnt to walk again but he has returned to motor racing, competing in the world touring car championships, as well as turning to Paracycling. “My heart belongs to motorsport,” he said. An ambitious plan to make the Indy500 this year did not come to fruition. Last month he was given a tour of Ferrari’s Maranello HQ as they prepare for the new season. He is an ardent admirer of Fernando Alonso but respects Sebastian Vettel’s refined ability.
“I wish I had been as good as [Vettel] has been,” says Zanardi. “He’s very humble. There are a lot of guys, myself included, [who] after winning a world championship, would just go around with a bunch of girls, a big gold watch, drinking champagne in discos showing off. But this kid is only interested in winning again. This is what makes him a real champion.
“I believe if Fernando had been a Red Bull team-mate driving the same car he wouldn’t have driven a better championship. But if Seb had been in Fernando’s Ferrari, Seb probably couldn’t have done the same job as Fernando. Alonso’s car was clearly not as competitive but he delivered miracles last year.”
Zanardi’s presence on the asphalt, whether it be in paracycle or adapted car, is a miracle of human achievement, and one that is ongoing. “It’s a long way from now to Rio and at 46, your years are like dog years, they count seven times,” he said. “I hope I can keep up my condition enough to compete and I am optimistic. I say 90 per cent yes for Rio. My passion is intact and training is still a joy. I believe I am still new as an athlete.”
Alex Zanardi is one of the Nominees for the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award. The winners will be announced on March 11 at the Laureus Awards Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. For more information please visit www.laureus.com