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

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
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

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home