Ten years after crash, Alex Zanardi has new source of adrenaline
Ten years ago, Italian auto racer Alex Zanardi lost his legs in a horrific crash
In 2007, he entered the NYC Marathon's hand cycle division, and placed fourth
Now, the newly-minted hand cyclist hopes to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics
Come the middle of September, Alex Zanardi is prepared to be peppered by one question, the same question he's been asked for years and years.
What do you remember about Sept. 15, 2001?
Zanardi savors a second of silence over the phone from his home near Venice. Composing his English with his unmistakable Italian accent, he responds.
"The first thought that will go through my mind in the morning when I open my eyes will be very much related to my current dreams," said Zanardi, "rather than to my past nightmares."
Ten years ago, Zanardi suffered one of the most horrific crashes in the history of auto racing at the American Memorial in Lausitz, Germany (The event was renamed from the German 500 after Sept. 11). He lost control of his car coming out of a pit stop, sliding onto the track perpendicular to 200-mph traffic, and was T-boned by Canadian driver Alex Tagliani.
Both of his legs were blown off. A priest read his last rites. But despite odds, Zanardi lived.
*An account of Zanardi's crash and survival was reported in superb detail by William Nack in 2002. Zanardi went on to describe what happened, with his signature humor, to HBO's Real Sports and racing enthusiast David Letterman.
Zanardi, now 44, had been behind the wheel since go-karts at age 13. He's admittedly addicted to adrenaline, the kind of feeling that kept him up all night before races as a teenager. In 1997 and 1998, Zanardi used his daredevil driving to win 15 races; he was the CART series champion both years and earned a Wheaties box to his name.
After the crash, he underwent 16 surgeries spanning 50 hours, spent 43 days in a Berlin hospital, endured 20 more days before he could stand up on prosthetic legs and about a year, he said, before feeling as comfortable and as independent as possible.
Zanardi did return to that German oval in 2003 to ceremoniously finish the final 13 laps of that race, which he was leading before the fateful crash, in a car modified to accommodate his prosthetics. Zanardi continued to race around Europe, winning here and there but more inconspicuously, until he gave up driving (temporarily, at least) in 2009.
But in the last four years, he's rediscovered that adrenaline high that driving once gave him in a new endeavor. Zanardi is now one of the world's elite in the Paralympic sport of hand cycling.
"The important thing in life, not just in sports, is to be able to set a new target in front of you, which is very much related to the deck of cards you've got available," Zanardi said.
And Zanardi did just that. A hand cycle is a three-wheeled bike propelled by the rider's hands and arms. Zanardi took up the sport essentially on a challenge a month before the 2007 New York Marathon, entered the hand cycle division 26.2-mile race and placed fourth out of a field of 53. He was hooked.
"I'm a fast learner," he said.
Zanardi went on to win the 2009 Venice Marathon and the 2010 Rome Marathon, shedding his former career to focus full-time on his new one. He entered New York again last year but was foiled by, of all things, a flat tire.
Nevertheless, Zanardi has earned the respect of the world's best hand cyclist, American Oz Sanchez. Sanchez also began hand cycling after a 2001 road accident, his on a motorcycle that resulted in nerve damage to his lower back.
"Zanardi is pretty much at the top of the list right now as far as competitors to look out for," Sanchez said. "If he's around, he's usually the No. 1 guy behind me."
Or more recently, in front. Two or three years ago, Zanardi would finish a few minutes back of the 2008 Paralympic champion Sanchez in 12-mile (or about 30-minute) road races. However, Zanardi finally improved enough to beat Sanchez this year, and he even could have challenged the American for the overall World Cup title (combining results in three tour stops) had he entered the final competition in Canada.
In advance of last week's world championships, Zanardi said he cycled 600 miles over 12 days in Italy's Apennine Mountains. The work reaped a silver medal (behind Sanchez) in the nine-mile time trial. The driver inside him digs the details; Zanardi picks the brains of his rivals and makes meticulous adjustments to his bike to be the best possible racer.
"It's not less significant or less important [to him] than his past as a car racer," said Louis Barbeau, president of the UCI Para-cycling Commission. "He is as committed."
Zanardi will do the Venice Marathon again next month, pulling a friend who has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease, which has hit Italian soccer players particularly hard) in a special wheelchair he built. He'll then compete in the New York Marathon for the third time Nov. 6, still seeking his first victory.
The ultimate goal is gold at the London Paralympics next summer. He's a virtual certainty to be selected to the Italian team, and Sanchez and Barbeau agree he's a medal contender.
Zanardi may not be done on four wheels, either. He was in the running with others for a one-time IndyCar appearance in the series' Las Vegas season finale Oct. 16. IndyCar offers a $5 million prize to an outsider if he can beat the top-ranked open-wheel pros, but Zanardi was not the chosen man. He holds no hard feelings and remains hopeful of racing on a U.S. track again, perhaps his next target after the Paralympics.
"My grandmother, in [nine] days, will turn 101 years old, so ... I'm still a baby," said Zanardi, who turns 45 on Oct. 23. "Once this is over, I can probably go back into motor sports if I'm given the opportunity. This is certainly my plan."
So what does Zanardi remember from 10 years ago?
Waking from a medically induced coma the following week, he says, and feeling thankful to dream again.
"At that point, my priority was to be able to live without all the wires and the tubes and the machines that were keeping me breathing," he said. "After that, it was gaining independence and to go to the bathroom on my own and then to dress myself on my own and then to become a good husband for my wife and a good father to my son. And on and on and on ..."