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Zanardi's Paralympic dreams

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Eleanor Oldroyd Eleanor Oldroyd | 16:39 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009

There are times in this job when you get to interview someone whose story is so inspiring, whose determination to succeed despite the odds is so great, that all your trivial worries and concerns seem paltry in comparison.

Earlier I spent half an hour on the phone to just such a person. It was eight o'clock in the morning, when I'm usually dashing around pestering the kids to get themselves ready for school.

But it was the only time my guest could talk, and with the prospect of me being in the studio presenting 5 live Sport until later on Thursday evening, we linked up the phone lines between London and Italy, with a producer at Television Centre recording it all for Thursday's show.

At the end of our conversation, the question of whether my younger daughter had remembered to pick up her guitar, or whether the elder daughter had practised her seven times table, didn't seem to matter a huge amount.

Alex Zanardi made his hand-cycle race debut at the 2007 New York MarathonAll things being equal, Alex Zanardi shouldn't be alive today, let alone pursuing a successful career as a motor-racing driver and dreaming of competing at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

When, in September 2001, he crashed in a CART race at the Lausitzring in Germany, both his legs were severed above the knee. He lost a massive amount of blood, and was only saved by the rapid arrival of medical teams at the scene. Accounts of the accident make horrific reading.

But after a week in a medically-induced coma, he was already planning his future.
"The question I asked when I woke up was not how am I going to live without legs - but how am I going to do all the things I want to do without legs?" he explained. "There was no doubt that I was going to do them, I was just curious to find out how - but I knew I was going to find a way."

He even used his racing driver's knowledge of highly-specialised materials to help develop his own prosthetic legs - and designed them so he could take his three-year-old son swimming, and throw him around in the pool like any Daddy would.

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By 2004, Zanardi was back behind the wheel full time, driving touring cars with specially adapted hand controls. He even had the chance to do some Formula 1 testing, for the BMW Sauber team, and he admits he dealt with the problems of squeezing into the tight F1 cockpit in a novel way.

"The technicians were trying to take out protective plates in the footwell, to expand the size - so I said, hold on a second guys, I'll just change my feet! So I went down from a size 43 (UK size 9) to a size 36 (UK size 3) - and that helped me dramatically!"

I was bowled over by Zanardi's humour and total lack of self pity - a relative rarity when some sportspeople are only too quick to complain or make excuses. And at a time when the reputation of Formula 1 is at an all-time low, I was interested in how a man whose life was turned upside down by a crash on a race track felt about Nelson Piquet and Crashgate.

"I am very sad for the sport," he said. "No-one goes away from the story with a clean soul. I believe we will never really know the truth. I am 42 now and I think differently from how I thought in my 20s, but I am sure that if someone had asked me to do this, I would have said, no thank you. I wouldn't have done it."

Now he's focused on a new challenge - competing for Italy at London 2012. He's already competed in the Para-Cycling Road World Championships in Italy in the hand-bike categories - where riders sit in a laid-back position and pedal with their hands, just using their upper bodies to do the work.

He finished 15th out of a field of 32, and he's hooked on the sport. "Our racing produces speeds of around 40km per hour over a 50 or 60km course. It's the opposite to motor-racing where on a Sunday afternoon what happens is much more related to luck or how competitive the car is," he said.

zanardi_accident595.jpgZanardi suffered serious injuries in the crash in Germany in 2001

"With hand-bikes, it's more a case of putting one brick on top of another and eventually the wall will come up. If you train hard and work hard eventually you will gain results, and that is the real spirit of life."

But even with the profile he already has, as a hugely popular racing driver, Zanardi knows he can't take a place in the Paralympics for granted.

"It would be like testing an F1 car for one day and then going on to say - I'm going to race in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend. There are plenty of steps from where I am now to London 2012. Whether I get there is purely a dream right now," he admits.

As a friend who's been lucky enough to work at two Paralympic Games told me this morning, the secret to Paralympic success is not to worry about what you can't do - but to focus on what you can.

And that's very much Alex Zanardi's philosophy, too.

"It has been a splendid adventure because I guess human beings without some kind of challenge - they don't live well. Whenever I have a drive or have a dream, I try to achieve it with what I have."

We'll have to wait to find out if Zanardi successfully swaps the role of motor-racing driver to that of Paralympic athlete, but what is certain is this - he has the Paralympic spirit in spades.


  • Comment number 1.

    Alex Zanardi, a true inspiration and a bloody nice chap to boot.
    I want to feel sorry for him, but the man has such a tremendous attitude.
    Excellent blog, and a very interesting insight into the world of Alex.

  • Comment number 2.

    I wish Alex Zanardi all the best in his efforts to get to the Paralympics. His attitude is a wonderful example.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thank you for this article. We could all learn a lot from him and his fantastic attitude towards life!

  • Comment number 4.

    What a great guy he is. Excellent attitude. Makes you think that there always ways to work through problems no matter how numerous. Hes an inspiration to everyone not to regret what happens in life

  • Comment number 5.

    He was never the greatest driver at the top level, but I doubt there's anyone who is involved in or follows motorsport who doubts his credentials as an incredible and inspirational man. His approach to his disability and the prosthetics he uses is wonderful - I saw a documentary clip about him where it was revealed he keeps screwdrivers on him at all times so he can adjust his legs when he's out and about. Amazing.

    Also, as he's pictured (in the green and white overalls, in the picture of Zanardi on the stretcher), I feel I should give a mention to Dr. Steven Olvey, who was CART's chief medic. It's thanks to his experience, meticulous planning (for instance, knowing that Zanardi should be sent to a hospital that was not the nearest, but was best equipped to deal with his injuries) and research into safety that Zanardi was able to survive, along with the quick thinking of his colleague Terry Tremmell (who tourniqueted Zanardi's legs with his and a track worker's belts).

  • Comment number 6.

    This just backs up the reason why right from the start in CART i chose to follow Alex, i just could see he was a real racer who would give it his all, He is one in 100 million.
    wishing you every success Alex

  • Comment number 7.

    Alex can be truly called an inspiration. No matter what he does he gives it 100% plus and does not look back and cry about what happened. More people in sports should have is dedication.

  • Comment number 8.

    Whilst the news is full of players diving or being paid thousands for kicking a ball around it is refreshing to see such inspiration.

    Good luck Alex, I hope to see you achieve your ambition and make 2012.

  • Comment number 9.

    All the best Alex.

  • Comment number 10.

    A true sporting hero, and still very much missed in Formula One.

    I wish him all the best with the paralympics. :)

  • Comment number 11.

    If only everyone in the world thought that way, would'nt the world be a different place

  • Comment number 12.

    agreed peterallis, all the very best wishes zano.

  • Comment number 13.

    How good it is to hear about Alex, I hope he completes his dream an gets to 2012, and that he carries on completing his next dream and the next, what an inspiration he is not just to others in a similar position but to able bodied people too I am sure. Good luck Alex and God bless.

  • Comment number 14.

    This story reminds me of Marc Herremans, a triathlete who ended 6th in his first Hawai Iron Man and seemed to be headed for a very promising career, only to crash during training a couple of months later. He's now paralised from the waist down.
    Two years after that first Hawai Iron man, he finished the race again, this time in a wheelchair. He won it too, a few years later.
    These kind of stories are very inspiring.

  • Comment number 15.

    Very best of luck Alex. I'll be looking out for you in London 2012!

  • Comment number 16.

    This was a really inspiring blog, sometimes we think that everything around us functioning against us and nothing seems to go well, at these times one should think of champions like Alex, he proves that champions don't always need to win the big prizes and grab the limelight, it is much more important to be a champion human being. I salute you Alex and thanks Eleanor for the blog, thanks also to Bortron for the pieces put in your comment.

  • Comment number 17.

    Wish more footballers read this blog...

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    As a quad who broke my neck way back in 1979, may I say congrats to Alex for having the attitude he has, but in my experience since entering the disability world (not voluntarily may I add)I've had the good luck to meet many like him, who, whether tackling the London Underground on wheels or disabled in some other way, get their lives together and carrying on regardless and in some ways even better and more successfully than before.Words like inspirational are used over and over again but we, in the main, do cope - often not being stopped by injury but bad social planning i.e.lack of accessible buildings for homes/work and simple plain ignorance from service providers even 14 years after the introduction of the Disability discrimination Act.

  • Comment number 20.

    Great article Eleanor. Watching and hearing him and other disabled athletes always inspire me to do and try better. When competing for GB in the Olympics if they haven't performed to their best they seem to apologise for it and say they will improve in the next event or next time. When all you get from our able bodied athletes is pathetic excuses who haven't really tried.

    I hope the BBC has a lot of coverage of the Vancover 2010 Paralympics in which I'm sure they will put or able bodied athletes to shame again.


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