Eleven years after he was resuscitated seven times following a horrific 200 mph crash, former race car driver Alex Zanardi was among the athletes honored at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games on Sunday.
His return to the podium – winning two golds and a silver for handcycling - is one of many inspirational stories behind the competition.
The 45-year-old Italian triumphantly lifted his three-wheeled cycle with one arm after winning a time-trial at England’s Brands Hatch course – a track on which he used to race with four wheels.
It is nothing short of extraordinary that he is alive, let alone the winner of three Paralympic medals.
Zanardi's journey to the Paralympics began at the American Memorial 500 on Sept. 15, 2001, at the Eurospeedway Lausitz in Germany — the only American-based series to go forward on the weekend after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Zanardi, a two-time CART champion, had had a difficult season. He started 22nd in a field of 27, but the car was responding well. He was enjoying the drive, passing one car after another, until with 13 laps to go he was in the lead.
Zanardi went into his final pit stop and the crew chief waved him off urging him to "Go, go, go!"
But as he built up speed to get back into the race, the car spun out of control and he veered onto the track. Canadian driver Alex Tagliani, traveling at close to 200 mph, could not avoid him. The reinforced carbon fiber cone of Tagliani's car sliced through the area beside Zanardi's left front wheel and cockpit, the weakest part of the vehicle.
On the track, Dr. Terry Trammel slipped and fell as he raced to the wreckage. He thought he had fallen in oil, but it was Zanardi's blood.
But Zanardi was alive.
The crash had severed Zanardi's right leg at the knee and his left at the thigh some five inches above the knee. The driver's lower legs had disintegrated like those of land mine victims, said Dr. Steve Olvey, director of medical affairs for CART at the time. He had lost 70 percent of his blood, his pelvis was fractured in five places and he had a lacerated liver.
His heart stopped seven times.
As part of his rehabilitation, Zanardi took up handcycling, which uses a vehicle powered by the arms that features two coasting rear wheels and one steerable front wheel.
He heard about the sport by chance. Zanardi and another athlete had both tried to pull into a disabled parking spot, setting off a dispute as to who should get it. He saw the other man's handbike on top of the car and got curious.
“I don’t know why it happened but I don’t complain because I’m here,” Zanardi said. “Everything else was up to me, to change an adversity into an opportunity…and I think you can do that with everything in life.”
He said the athletes in London - the biggest Paralympic Games in history – had demonstrated that their achievements are about ability rather than disability.
photo credit: © 2012 NBC News
video credit: © 2012 today.com
edited text credit: © 2012 Jamieson Lesko/Alastair Jamieson via NBC,com