ALEX ZANARDI AMAZING COMEBACK STORY
Back on Track: The Amazing Comeback Story of Paralympic Cyclist Alex Zanardi
Alex Zanardi has been a racer all his life. He discovered the joy of go-karting at age 13, became a Formula One driver less than a decade later and then found himself on stage accepting the CART championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in both 1997 and 1998. But after Alex lost both legs—and nearly his life—in a terrible collision on a German speedway in 2001, it would have been understandable if he had chosen to give up the sport. But he didn’t.
He got back in the driver’s seat—first a modified racing car, but most recently a three-wheeled, carbon-bodied handcycle—and has accomplished more than anyone could have imagined.
At the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, he earned three medals (two gold and a silver), and the image of Alex proudly hoisting his bike overhead after his first Olympic win was certainly one of the most memorable of the entire competition.
Read on to hear Alex tell his incredible story, and better yet, keep an eye out for him cheering on his former racing colleagues at the Indy 500 on Sunday. He’ll be watching as a guest of Target alongside his ex-CART boss Chip Ganassi.
It started as a joke, really. In 2007, a friend of mine at Barilla, a company that I have proudly represented for years, called to ask if I would be interested in attending a pre-race pasta party before the New York City marathon. He was hoping I would come to the dinner, shake a few hands and make a short speech. But I could tell he felt a bit guilty about asking me to make such a long trip for such a short speech.
I was partly kidding when I suggested, “How about I race in the marathon?” He knows I love a challenge, so of course he responded by telling me it was not possible. The marathon was less than a month away, and I had never handcycled before.
It was really those two words—‘not possible’—that got me going. Determined to prove him wrong, I called my friend Vittorio Podesta, an accomplished handcyclist, and asked to borrow a bike. He said, “That’s great! We have a year to train.” I said, “No! We have two weeks!”
To my own surprise, I came in fourth place in the handcycling category at the New York marathon. But more exciting than a medal was the discovery of a new sport. The handcycle became my favorite piece of training equipment, and the more time I spent with it, the more I fell in love. After gaining some momentum in the sport, I couldn’t get the dream of going to the 2012 London Olympics out of my head.
In 2009, I made the decision to give up motor racing in order to dedicate myself entirely to my training routine as a cyclist.
I believe that you only become a champion if you love what you do, and I am lucky to have discovered a real passion for cycling. I certainly enjoyed a few Sunday afternoons of glory as a racecar driver, but I can sincerely say that I have enjoyed every single day of the past three years as a handcyclist.
Things really came together for me in London. Nothing will ever eclipse the feeling of winning my first gold medal, but it was more than just that one moment of kissing the tarmac. All of the moments leading up to it—discovering new techniques, learning how to modify my bike, figuring out how to get the very most out of myself—were part of a magical journey.
When the Games came to an end, I was sad that the wild ride was over. I like, however, to think that I’m like an Italian wine that only gets better with age, and so I’ve set my sights on Rio in 2016.
I like to say that a man without a challenge in his path leads an empty life. Racing and working through the challenges of my new condition has given me a way to feel alive again.
Since my accident, I have often thought of my teenage years, when my father wanted me to have a fallback plan in case my dream of becoming a Formula One racer did not come true. He was a plumber and insisted I learn his trade. The worst-case scenario, he thought, would be that I was a Formula One racer who also knew how to fix a toilet. He and I were always bickering on the job though, so he decided I should instead apprentice with his friend Rino, an electrician.
I will never forget opening that first control box and seeing a mess of wires. “It might look complicated,” Rino said, “but remember, you only need to pay attention to two wires—black and red. Just keep your eyes on black and red.”
Sometimes life puts a limit on how far you can follow a dream, and the road ahead can seem tangled. Find your black and red, and keep your eyes on them. Devoting yourself to a passion can in itself be a path forward.
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