We've written before about Alex Zanardi, when he won the handbiking division in the New York City Marathon in November. Yesterday he won the gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics at Brands Hatch.
The Telegraph UK report:
Paralympics 2012: Alex Zanardi takes an emotional gold at Brands Hatch
He sat laughing and legless on the racetrack, one mighty arm punching the sky and the other hoisting aloft his lightweight racing tricycle.
And as the crowd gazed on the extraordinary Alex Zanardi, everybody at Brands Hatch wanted to celebrate with a man who had cheated death to become a sporting hero all over again.
Just when you thought these Paralympic Games could not offer any more unfathomable comeback tales, here was one to top the lot, that of the star racing driver who lost his legs and almost his life after a horror crash in Germany before re-emerging 11 years later as a champion cyclist.
“I’ve had a magical adventure — and this is a fantastic conclusion,” beamed the charismatic 45 year-old with his usual theatrical Italian flourish after winning the gold medal in the H4 hand cycling time trial. “This is a great accomplishment, one of the greatest of my life.”
The life of a great man too, it should now be added. He knew, by rights, he should not be here at all. That CART championship crash in Lausitz, when his car was sliced open by another hitting it at 200mph, had left him being read the last rites in the helicopter flying him to hospital. His heart stopped seven times. Doctors believed he disproved Nasa studies about how long a body can survive, telling him: “Officially, you’re a dead man.”
Yesterday, in the warmth of a late summer’s day, it was impossible not to smile when the showman, having realised he had won over the iconic British circuit he had first sped around as a Formula 3000 driver 21 years ago, was squeezed out of the carbon fibre racing bike, which he helped design to fit him like a ‘Cinderella shoe’, to begin his exultant sit-down celebration.
“You know, I’m Alex Zanardi, I always have to come up with something at the end of a race!” he laughed. “I have a little bit of a big head!” Not to mention a heart of unfeasible proportions.
His great friend Jimmy Vasser, the US motor racing impresario, had always laughed about Zanardi’s show-off tendencies, and telephoned him on the eve of the race. “He said: ‘If you win gold, I’m going to put you in a car for the Indy 500.’ So I’m going to call him back tonight and say: ‘Jimmy, here I am. I’ve got the gold medal. How about the car?’”
You just knew he was not joking. For the amazing Zanardi, clutching gold in a sport he had only taken up five years ago as an athletic diversion, admitted this was effectively mission accomplished. He has just two more challenges, in today’s road race and Saturday’s team relay.
“But from Monday, I’ll have to find something good or else life will become a little boring! I will give my wife (Daniela) a good week to relax, do shopping and all the women things - then back to business.
“I will never dump hand cycling as long as I have an ounce of power in my arms but if a good opportunity before Rio comes to add one wheel and an engine, why not?”
You would put nothing past him. He was timed at an average of 38.65kph, pumping his hands rhythmically to propel his three-wheeler’s pedals. The last time he was here four years ago, he laughed, he had gone at least five times faster, when he had returned as a double amputee following his accident and drove a specially adapted car at the World Touring Car championship.
The difference this time? “I never won here before,” he explained delightedly. In 1991, Zanardi was second; in 2008, third. “I was ecstatic when I heard it was coming to Brands Hatch which is a circuit that I’ve always loved. If you had asked me a few years ago whether I would take part in the Paralympics at this circuit, I would have asked you what you were on.”
Yet, suddenly, he was looking at the beautiful Kent circuit through new eyes. “It’s only on the bike that I now realise it was so hilly,” he said. “It is beautiful, hard. It suits my characteristics of an old man.”
Up against younger rivals in the battle against the clock, including the 37 year-old American Oscar Sanchez who has dominated the event, Zanardi, who gave up motor racing three years to concentrate on hand cycling — “It wasn’t the only crazy thing I did in my life” — thrived on the surprisingly sharp inclines.
After the first circuit, he was 14sec faster than Germany’s Norbert Mosandl, with Sanchez already over half a minute behind, and Zanardi relentlessly forged on to clock 24min 50.22sec.
He had to wait anxiously to see the others arrive, only to discover Mosandl was 27 seconds slower. “And when Sanchez (who finished 45 seconds down for bronze) hadn’t shown, I believed something magical was happening.
“Of course, I was a little bit emotional. I can’t say its any better or worse than my big motor racing wins but it’s just at the top of the scale with many of the other great moments I’ve been lucky enough to live.
Actually, the temptation was to spin another lap around the course but I was scared they’d disqualify me!”
Zanardi is a TV star, hosting a Italian version of ‘Tomorrow’s World’, and helps design his own legs and bikes, just as he did with his cars. Nothing can beat him - just do not call him an inspiration. “I’m nothing special,” he said airily, musing that he will doubtless come up with some new challenge.
“If I have one talent it’s certainly my curiosity. “And I really am somebody very lucky. I can leave and carry on with a great life, a very happy life, even just picking up a fishing rod and going out fishing with my son (Niccolo). I don’t need anything but if something special comes along.”
His eyes flashed. You would pay a lot to watch the great Zanardi’s next adventure.
for the Italian
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