According to the Oxford Dictionary, a hero is “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. My definition goes like this: Alex Zanardi
The world has been given a lot of great drivers throughout the decades and names like Ascari, Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Villeneuve, Senna, Prost or Schumacher live in the minds of race car fans all over the world.
However, all of them – put together – can’t hold a candle against an Italian man named Alessandro Zanardi. Because Zanardi is not just a genius driver, he is a real life hero in the most literal sense of the word, a man whose life is an inspiration not only for petrolheads, but for everyone, everywhere, forever. If you didn’t know who he was before reading this, I may forgive you, but only just.
Alex Zanardi will be 50 years old one month from tomorrow, on October 23, 2016. Last week, he won his third and fourth Gold Medals at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, coming first in the H5 Time Trial and Team Relay, a result he had previously achieved in London four years ago, where he also won the individual road race.
Except at one point Alex Zanardi was one of the best racing drivers in the world. He won two back-to-back Indycar championships (that is the equivalent of F1 in the States) in 1997 and 1998 and was loved for his aggressive style and spectacular manoeuvres on track. He was also an exceptional character, a typical Italian for whom la vita è bella and you only get to live it once.
In September 2001, however, in a freaky accident at the Lausitzring oval, near Dresden, in Germany, where he lost control of his car coming out of the pits and was rammed into at 320km/hour, he lost both of his legs. In his own words, “part of the car stayed with me, the other part left, with parts of me in it”.
Between the moment of the accident and the hospital in Berlin where he was taken to, he lost 75% of the blood running through his body and was dead three times – and three times the doctors brought him back to life successfully.
Zanardi was born in Bologna to a struggling middle-class family and fought his way through karting and single-seater categories, his outstanding ability making up for the lack of money many rivals could rely upon.
Somehow he got the results that led him to Formula One but the sport sent him back on his way just four years later with no significant results. That was great, because Zanardi joined Chip Ganassi Racing in Indycars and after a rookie season in which he placed third in the standings, he took the 1997 and 1998 titles and signed his name in the history of motorsport.
F1 called him back but, again, the wrong car at the wrong time served him poorly and he returned to Indycars, where once again he was gaining momentum. Then came the accident that changed his life forever.
With 13 laps to run, as he exited the pits after his last stop, he spun and left Alex Tagliani no chance to avoid impact at more than 320km/h. Check it on YouTube if you can summon the courage. Indycar doctors decided to bypass the circuit medical centre and the Dresden hospital, believing a 55-minute helicopter flight to Berlin would be Zanardi’s best chance of survival.
Multiple operations were needed to remove all the debris from his body and what remained of his legs was amputated – but in a way that would allow him to walk again with prostheses.
In less than two weeks he was out of the hospital, in less than two years back in the car to complete those 13 laps in a day when no one could hide their tears. Then he joined BMW at the WTCC and later the Blancpain Series and even won some races in a specially adapted car.
But the legend of Alex Zanardi was just taking its first steps. In 2007 he was invited to attend the NY marathon, so he bought a hand-cycling bike, trained for four weeks and finished fourth. He won it outright in 2011.
That was the beginning of a goal that became a dream of the Bolognese: to be an Olympic champion. In 2012 Zanardi stunned the world when he finished first on the Individual Road Race (H4 Class) and Individual Time Trial (H4 Class). He took the Silver Medal in the Team Relay (H1-4 Class).
Eleven years after effectively being dead for several minutes and showing willpower like we may only see a handful of times in the course of our lives, Alessandro Zanardi became a global legend on the British circuit of Brands Hatch – where else but on a race-track – and a two-time Olympic champion.
Last week though, he became Superman. A month from half a century old, fighting off competition half his age and finding motivation where others would lay in defeat, he did it again: Gold at the H5 Class time-trial, Silver at the road race, at the new Olympic Stadium in Rio, Brazil. Guess what was there before they built it? A race track of course – the one where Zanardi got his first Indycar pole-position, no less. How about that for a perfect real-life superhero story?
If we saw Zanardi’s tale in a movie we would say those Hollywood guys had lost sight of what is believable, but Alex is bigger than life, he is bigger than death and he has become a part of history in his own right. Someone give the man a red cape with a big yellow Z please. I bet Superman would fly.
By Guilherme Marques