March 2, 2013
It remains one of the iconic images of the 2012 Games. A man, his legs missing from the knee down, sits on the sun-baked tarmac of Brands Hatch. He holds his hand-cycle above his head with what seems Herculean strength. His smile is one of pure joy.
That man was Alex Zanardi. He had just won the Paralympic gold in the hand-cycle road race on the very track he once raced motor cars. The picture would appear the next day in newspapers around the world.
“I’m not new to big celebrations,” or “Zanardi moments” as the former racing driver calls them. “But behind that picture you could tell the meaning of my gesture after everything I’d done in my life and finally ending up in London at the Paralympic Games.”
Zanardi’s achievements on the track in summer 2012 have led to his Nomination for this year’s Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award. Now Zanardi is looking forward to Monday evening on March 11 when he will find out if his achievements that day will be enough to win the Laureus Award.
“We’re talking about something so prestigious, something really big. But I know the other Nominees are at least as deserving as myself. [The Academy] have a hard choice to make, my heart will be feeling with great intensity when the decision is announced.”
And as a former racing driver himself, what are his thoughts on Sebastian Vettel, who is Nominated in the Laureus Sportsman of the Year category?
“An amazing talent. To some degree I envy him, I wish I had been as good!
“There are a lot of guys, myself included, after winning a World Championship, would just go around with a bunch of girls, a big gold watch, drinking champagne in discos showing off. But this kid is only interested in winning again. This is what makes him a real champion and someone who deserves the Laureus Award.”
Having shown time and time again an ability to defy the difficulties life has thrown at him, many would say something similar about Zanardi too.
To sports fans the world over in the nineties, the name Alex Zanardi was synonymous with motor racing. He raced in Formula One, and also became a popular driver in the Champ car series, winning the world title in 1997 and 1998.
But on September 15, 2001, as the Champ season took drivers to the Lausitzring in Germany, Zanardi entered the cockpit for a race that would change his life forever.
He started from the back of the grid, but a brilliant individual performance saw him gain position after position. By the closing laps, Zanardi led the pack.
As he merged onto the track following a late pit stop, however, his car spun out of control. He was crushed between two others.
Zanardi lost both legs in the accident, and calls his subsequent rehabilitation the “darkest days” of his life.
But despite the incredible trauma he had suffered, he remembers sport as a source of great hope and strength.
As he returned to health, Zanardi was offered the chance to test drive a racing car for the first time since the crash; an opportunity that would have a profound impact on him. “The very first car was designed so I could do everything with my hands,” he recalls, “I was busier with my fingers than Hendrix with his guitar. [But] on the first lap I took, I realised I would become a professional racing driver once again.”
He did exactly that.
Zanardi’s return to motor racing led to his winning the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award in 2005.
Two years later and looking for his next challenge, Zanardi then took advantage of being in New York on motor racing duties during the city’s 2007 Marathon. He had taken up hand cycling, a Paralympic event, only a month earlier, but he entered the Marathon in the category regardless. It was a decision that would put him on the road to Olympic victory just five years later at London 2012, an achievement he calls “a dream come true.”
And as a self-confessed “expert fan” of the Olympics and Paralympics, he was equally moved by the Games in London as a whole.
“The real value that can be inspirational for us is the fact we are watching people who have taken life as a huge opportunity to improve themselves... [This is] the Paralympic message. Everyone clearly had disadvantages at the start compared to other people. But when you see a girl like Cecilia Camellini swimming, completely blind, when you see them competing, you can’t help but be inspired.
“The message of the games was ‘Inspire a Generation’. I believe it did.”
But if children across the world now dream of replicating Usain Bolt’s ‘lightning’ pose following the Games, budding hand cyclists will similarly look to that image of Zanardi, his cycle lifted above his head with one hand, as their celebration of choice.
It is an image he admits “went on to become a mark of the Games”, but what was the man feeling himself at that moment on the Brands Hatch track?
“I stepped out of my cycle, and actually had another ‘Zanardi moment’ by kissing the asphalt.
“As soon as I touched the asphalt with my lips, it was like touching uncovered wire, you get the electricity. The warm asphalt was setting off images, moments of my life.
“I saw myself as a little kid doing my first laps in a go-kart. And I saw my dad next to me because he was my mechanic. My first race wins. The difficult moments. Then racing with a car and making pole position at Brands Hatch in 1991, 21 years before [the Games] and hoping I’d end up in F1. Then getting into F1 but losing my ride. Then enjoying success in the US. Then the accident, the recovery… The asphalt, it’s been like an element, a consistency in my life.”
“All that happened in two seconds. It was incredible, an intense moment.”