Today at the Games: He lost his legs in CART crash, now Alex Zanardi goes for cycling gold

He woke in hospital a week later to be told his heart had stopped seven times

Alex Zanardi is lucky to be alive. That may be a suggestion too readily trotted out around the Paralympics, yet how else do you describe a man who has had two car crashes, both of which should have ended his life?

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This afternoon at Brands Hatch – a venue Zanardi knows well from his motor-racing days – the Italian will make his Paralympic debut as a road cyclist, looking to win a medal in the H4 time trial. The H classification is hand cycling – Zanardi lost his legs in the second accident 11 years ago.

First things first, or rather first accidents first. In 1993, Zanardi was in his third season in Formula One. It had been a stop-start career but he had joined Lotus and registered his first Formula One points with a sixth in the Brazilian Grand Prix. Then came Spa. In practice for the Belgium Grand Prix, Zanardi crashed in an accident that imparted a G-force 18 times higher than a level that usually proves fatal.

It ended his season but no worse; eight years later it was a great deal worse. Having been replaced at Williams by a young Jenson Button, Zanardi had returned to CART racing when he was involved in a collision during a race in Brandenburg. He woke up in hospital a week later to be told his heart had stopped seven times, he had been given the last rites, and he had lost his legs. But he was alive.

Zanardi took up handcycling five years ago and although the 45-year-old will be one of the older racers in Brands Hatch – most of his main competitors are around half his age – he won a silver at the World Championships in Denmark last year. He also won the New York marathon last year and has sought to utilise some of the design technologies used in Formula One in constructing his racing chair.

Britain has two handcyclists in the Games. Rachel Morris will defend the time-trial title she won in Beijing today, while Karen Darke has won two silvers in this year's World Cup. It is a busy opening day for the home cyclists – there are 18 gold medals on offer – as they seek to transfer their successful stay in the Velodrome outdoors.

It is time-trial day, with the main British focus on Sarah Storey. Having won two gold medals in the Velodrome, Storey will seek to cement her status as one of Britain's outstanding Paralympians with two more at Brands Hatch. Her first attempt comes today in the C5 time trial, an event in which she has won the last two World Championships.

Jon-Allan Butterworth, who won two silver medals on the track, has his first road ride in a major event in the men's C5 and Mark Colbourne and Shaun McKeown go in the C1 and C3 respectively. Butterworth's prospects are difficult to judge, in view of his novice status – although, given British Cycling's record in talent spotting and Butterworth's ability, a medal would not be a surprise – and Colbourne and McKeown should make the podium. David Stone, a double gold medallist in Beijing, competes in the T1-2 time trial (T is the tricycle classification) and Lora Turnham, who missed out on a medal on the track, rides with her pilot Fiona Duncan in the B time trial having won World Cup gold.

Brit watch

Wheelchair Rugby

Great Britain will be looking to start their quest for a medal strongly in the mixed competition, although they face a tough first game against the US, the team ranked No 1 in the world, at the Basketball Arena. Britain are ranked fifth in the world in the event.

The match is scheduled to kick off at 2pm, with both remaining group games taking place during the following two days. The gold medal match takes place on Sunday.

Liz Johnson; Swimming

After winning the 100m breaststroke SB6 gold in Beijing under tough personal circumstances, Johnson will attempt to retain her title at 7.31pm, but the heats take place first today at 11.12am.

The 26-year-old will be challenged by her fellow Briton, Charlotte Henshaw, who will be hoping to make it a British one-two. In her favoured event, Johnson will hope to improve on her sixth-place finish in the 200m individual medley SM6.

Louise Watkin; Swimming

The 20-year-old, who was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but represents Great Britain after moving to the country in 1996, will be up against some fierce competition in the 50m women's freestyle final tonight at 8.30pm.

If she can progress from the morning's heats (11.40am), she will have to beat the imperious South African Natalie Du Toit, who has powered to victory in the event in the last two Paralympic Games, to claim gold at the Aquatics Centre.

Katrina Hart; Athletics

The 22-year-old is scheduled to run in the T37 200m heats at 10.49am and, should she qualify, is one of the favourites to win the final at 8.42pm.

Hart, who won the 200m event at the 2011 World Championships but finished sixth in the T37 100m final on Sunday, is stronger over the longer distance. Her main challenger for a first Paralympic gold medal comes from Germany's Maria Seifert, who will look to upgrade the two bronzes she won in 2008.

James Willis

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