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To Alex Zanardi, there is no such thing as a gripping real-life story that can't be improved in the retelling. To wit: the daring, last-lap maneuver on a downhill curve with which the former open-wheel driver stole a CART race from rival Bryan Herta in 1996. The move instantly became the stuff of legend—racing fans still know it simply as The Pass. But the following winter Jimmy Vasser, a Champ Car teammate, noticed that Zanardi's banquet-circuit accounts took the moment to new dramatic heights. After hearing his friend describe Herta's eyes widening in disbelief as Zanardi zoomed by, Vasser produced a photo of Herta wearing a helmet that day with an impenetrable black visor. "C'mon, Jimmy," Zanardi said with a smile, "you know I like to tell stories."
Some tales, however, defy embellishment. Eleven years ago this week at the Lausitzring track in Germany, Zanardi lost both legs in a crash so violent that he was administered last rites. But there was Zanardi on Sept. 5, competing at Brands Hatch circuit in London, a course he first navigated as a promising Formula 3000 driver in 1991—only this time as a handcyclist at the Paralympic Games. Zanardi, 45, won two gold medals in London, in the 16K H4 time trial and the 64K H4 road race, the latter by just one second in a sprint finish. "To win in this way ... makes me really proud," says Zanardi, who also helped Italy take silver in the mixed relay. "It shows that I am a complete cyclist, even if I have no legs."
On Sunday, Zanardi capped what he calls a "magical adventure" by bearing Italy's flag in the Paralympics' closing ceremony. "I found happiness the very first day of training," he says. "It would have been worth doing even if I had won nothing here."
Before his accident Zanardi was one of open-wheel racing's most charismatic stars: the CART Champ Car rookie of the year in 1996, the points champion in '97 and '98, and a strong competitor in more than 40 Formula One events. Fans loved the way he married skill with showmanship, punctuating victories with doughnut spins before that became a finish-line ritual. After his first Champ title he shared a Wheaties box with Vasser, his Ganassi Racing teammate and the 1996 champion.
Zanardi's passion for racing didn't diminish after his crash. Weeks after the accident, before he even got the hang of walking on prosthetic legs, Zanardi was behind the wheel in a hand-controlled car. In 2003 he began driving in the European Touring Car Championships, winning four times. "I didn't go into touring cars to prove anything," he says. "I started racing again because it makes me happy."
In 2006, Zanardi got into a dispute in Italy with another driver over a handicapped parking spot. Seeing a wheeled contraption on the roof of the other man's car, Zanardi defused the tension by asking, "What's that?" It was a handcycle, and a year later Zanardi called the man, future Paralympic relaymate Vittorio Podesta, and asked where he could get one to train for the New York City Marathon. With just a few weeks' practice, Zanardi finished fourth in the handcycling division. After training full time for two years, he won in New York last fall.
The occasional parking-spot spat aside, Zanardi has embraced life as a double amputee with grace and good humor. "It's like his disability isn't even an issue," says his former race-team boss Chip Ganassi, who has seen Zanardi pop off a prosthetic, turn it upside down and set a bowl of peanuts on the foot just to make a crowd of old friends and new acquaintances feel at ease.
Zanardi prefers the term diverse ability to disability, and he's already thinking of ways to further diversify. He's toying with the idea of skiing in the Winter Paralympics. Driving in the Indianapolis 500—Vasser, who now co-owns an IndyCar team, promised to set up Zanardi with a car if he won gold in London—is another possibility, though Zanardi, who lives with his wife and 14-year-old son in Padua, Italy, admits that it's a faint one. "Right now I have a very happy life," he says. "I don't need to shoot off fireworks every day." But if the right opportunity came along? "You might see me shooting off more fireworks. Who knows?"