Alex Zanardi: next stop Rio 2016 for the comeback kid who never gave up

Former F1 driver, who lost his legs in a crash 11 years ago, won paracycling gold at London 2012 and tells Robin Scott-Elliot his amazing journey is far from over

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable