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. Zanardi spoke to laureus.com of his journey. Excerpts:
On his journey to London 2012
In the beginning I was just very curious. I had come to the end of a learning process, as, at the end of the day, hand cycling was still a relatively new discipline for me. But I met a new trainer, a humble guy, wise, something I definitely miss. Due to him, I was able to finally improve my training procedure. This helped me make considerable steps forward in my preparation and I could tell I was improving in terms of performance. I spent the entire end of winter and beginning of spring (before the Games) thinking ‘where do I fit in among the competition’ so I waited for the first race of the world cup in Rome anxiously as the first chance to find out. I won both the ten mile race and the road race. That was a huge injection of self-confidence, but I also knew I had warned my opponents who would be the ones to challenge later in the season in London. I kept working to raise the level of my game further. When I finally discovered (having won) in London in September that it was enough, it was a dream come true. While all this was happening I never forgot the passion, the love for what I do was what mattered. London was an important added value, but it wasn’t the only value. I ended up winning because I love to ride. I didn’t jump in my bike because I wanted to go to London 2012. There’s a big difference between the two.
On his passion for racing
You cannot force yourself to be passionate about something just because you want to get results other people have achieved. This is called ambition, not passion. You have to be ambitious as well. I would say the right mixture is 70 per cent passion and 30 per cent ambition. But when the two ingredients are mixed the opposite way, all you want to do is enjoy the success, since everything else leading to that day, the training, preparation, you believe all that to be a sacrifice. If this is the case, you’re not going to get there. That’s why I say I ended up in London because I love cycling. I didn’t ride because I wanted to go to London 2012. I’m lucky now. Being Alex Zanardi means I can choose what I want to do because I can then turn it into a professional opportunity. It’s not always been like that. When I was a kid, being Alex Zanardi meant just being the son of two great parents who taught me to be curious in life, to always try and understand where I wanted to go, what is my reason, something only mine, what’s going to be mine, not just because I saw someone to copy. They taught me to take every day as a new opportunity to add something to what I did yesterday. And step-by-step you can build great things. I chose the sport I was naturally passionate about, and I have to say, the road to London was possibly more enjoyable than winning in London. Everyday of training has been a great gift from god, a marvellous experience. I think every one of us can do that. I did it in the darkest days of my rehab when it didn’t look easy because of everything I had in front of me.
On rehab after his 2001 Lausitzring crash
It happened on September 15, 2001. It took me 48 days to leave the hospital as I had 16 operations of four hours long. When I came out of hospital my condition was poor, but a month later I made my first visit to the orthopaedic centre for my prostheses. It was hard to regain strength and whilst this was happening, I was learning to walk again. It was only a month before I could walk, but much longer before I could see myself getting to the point that I had no more improving to do. That was about a year later, when that happened, of course I started to focus on other things. That’s when I had the opportunity to test a racing car. After that test, I realised I wanted to drive again because that showed me that though it would be bloody difficult, there was light at the end of the tunnel. I could believe it possible to compete again at the highest level in order to win some races.
On driving for the first time again
The very first car was designed so I could do everything with my hands… I was busier with my fingers than Hendrix with his guitar. It was all a bit much. If you’d given me a sweeper in my mouth I could’ve cleaned the cockpit too! So I sat down with the mechanics and engineers and suggested I push the brake with my right leg, my longest leg after the accident. Their reaction was ‘it’s impossible, you don’t have power brakes in the car, you need more than 100kg on the pedal’. But I’m pretty much allergic to the word impossible. So I went home, picked up some scales, put the scales against the wall and told the engineer who said ‘impossible’ to squeeze against it with his leg. All he managed was 105kg. I said ‘my turn’. I did 125kg. The engineer just had no idea I could do that. So we fitted basically a normal brake pedal with an attached shoe so my foot was always on the brake pedal. With the first lap I did with the new solution I knew I would become a professional racing driver once again. I saw my future in front of my eyes knowing I was going to be able to compete at the highest level. It made me curious. Later that curiosity became passion and the rest is history.
On his first hand cycling competition
When I did my first New York Marathon (in 2007), which I did because I was there for motor racing, people immediately said I might go to Beijing for the Paralympics. But the distance between me and the top athletes was impossible to cover in such a short time. It was still a marvellous experience.
On the London Games
The Games were fantastic, Britain should be really proud, I’m sure they are. I guess the real value that can be inspirational for us is that we are watching people who have taken life itself as a huge opportunity to improve themselves. It can be inspirational in telling you ‘yeah, I can do the same’. Maybe not to the same level, but at least to take life as an opportunity to improve yourself. When you see someone like Usain Bolt, you might think he comes from Mars, I’ll never be able to do the same. The Paralympic message is different. Everyone clearly has a disadvantage at the start compared to some people, but when you see a girl like Cecilia Camellini swimming completely blind, you can’t avoid being inspired. The message from the games was ‘inspire a generation’ and I believe this was delivered.
On winning at London 2012 and celebrating with is hand cycle held above him
I’m not new to big celebrations. When I used to drive in the US I used to do doughnuts, everyone would call me a big head for that. All the guys who criticised me then do exactly the same thing now when they win though. They actually used to call it a ‘Zanardi’, not a doughnut.
(But having won at Brands Hatch) I was just very, very happy. I picked up my hand cycle and raised it up just because I wanted to celebrate. The following day I was told that picture was on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. It was like behind the picture you really tell the measure of the gesture that was coming from winning such a race from doing everything I had done in my life and finally ending up in London at the Paralympic games. If someone had told me years ago (this would happen) I would’ve asked whether they’d been smoking something!
But when I won the road race and stepped out of my cycle I had another ‘Zanardi’ moment. Kissing the asphalt. As soon as I touched the asphalt with my lips it was like touching uncovered wire, you get the electricity. It was something unexpected. The warm asphalt. It was like setting off a lot of 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 and then racing in a car and winning pole position at Brands Hatch in 1991, 21 years before London 2012 and hoping to end up in Formula One, getting to F1 then losing my ride. The getting to the US and enjoying success. Then more difficult moments with my accident, the recovery. All that happened in two seconds. It was an incredible, intense moment. Such an injection of joy, of nostalgia as well. For everything I’ve done in my life, the asphalt has been like an element, a (source of) consistency. If someone had said not only that I would raise the level of my game enough to qualify for the Paralympics, that I’d be going to London and win and that it’s going to happen at Brands Hatch, one of my favourite courses that had been so important to my racing career, where I’d always been so close to winning a race and that I’d finally achieve the perfect result with a hand cycle, well, it was ironical, part of a plan from up there because it was too perfect to be human. It was very special to have it happen at Brands Hatch.
On being a role model
I certainly don’t have the right to think of myself as a role model. I’m sure I am an important reference point for young people. The best way for me to serve at all is to go on in my way doing the things I love to do. And if someone along the way says ‘thanks Alex for doing what you are doing, it’s been important for me’, then all I can do is thank them and keep doing the same.
On his Laureus Award Nomination
We are talking about something so prestigious, something really big. But I know the other Nominees are at least as deserving as myself to win. (The academy) has a hard choice to make. One person will be very happy but that does not mean the others should be disappointed because they are still great champions, otherwise they wouldn’t be nominated. And for me, just to be Nominated is a great source of pride. My heart will be feeling with great intensity when the decision is announced for the final winner.
On Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Nominee Sebastian Vettel
An amazing talent. To some degree I envy him, I wish I had been as good as he has been. He is very humble. He’s very interested in his profession and performing to the best of his abilities in every single moment of his life. 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. But my heart belongs to motorsport.
On Alonso compared to Vettel
If Alonso had been another nominee it would have been a hard choice for me. I believe if Fernando had been a Red Bull team mate driving the same car he wouldn’t have driven a better championship. But if Seb had been in Fernando’s Ferrari Seb probably couldn’t have done the same job as Fernando. Alonso’s car was clearly not as competitive but he delivered miracles last year. So even though Fernando was runner-up, (if they had both been Nominated) I would still have found the choice hard.
On reports he is considering skiing at Sochi 2014
It’s some years since I started skiing and I recently started Nordic Skiing and a picture went out of me in a magazine, taken maybe by a fan or paparazzi and immediately the rumour was ‘Zanardi is going to Sochi for the Winter Paralympics’. Now I’m not saying that is not happening for sure, but there’s no reason to indicate it will happen. Of course, when I am asked if I’d ever consider it my answer is not no because I love sport, I love skiing but where hand cycling is convenient, skiing would require a lot of time in the mountains, educating myself in something I don’t have the time for at my age. Sochi then? I believe 90 per cent I would not be going because I know it’s not simple. At every level of sport if you want to win it takes talent but also developing that talent. I don’t think I have the time.
On racing again at the Rio Games in 2016
It’s a long way from now to Rio and at 46, your years are like dog years, they count seven times. So I hope I can keep up my condition enough to compete and I am optimistic. So if I have a forecast to say 90 per cent no to Sochi, I say 90 per cent yes for Rio. My passion is intact and training is still a joy. I believe I am still new as an athlete and though I may lose something because of my age, there is also something to be gained by keeping moving and adapting to be in competitive shape.