Just after September 11, 2001, the CART racing series held what was pretty much the first international sporting event after the terrorist attacks at the Lausitzring Circuit in Germany. But instead of signaling some sort of return to normalcy, it ended in a horrific accident involving 1997/1998 series champion Alex Zanardi.
Zanardi lost both of his legs in the crash and nearly died. But he somehow didn't let that get him down. And now, 11 years later, he's a different sort of champion. Zanardi just won gold in handcycling at the Paralympic Games.
After that crash, it was touch and go for quite a while. Zanardi was given the last rites at the race track with oil from his engine. He was in a medically induced coma for weeks. Yet somehow he pulled through.
He got prosthetic legs, which he said he liked because he could now "choose his own height." He appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and made a few jokes. It's that sense of humor that he credits with helping him return to a normal life.
In 2003, he returned to the site of his crash and drove a specially equipped car with hand controls for 13 laps, the 13 laps he didn't finish after his accident. Zanardi also drove a specially equipped BMW in the World Touring Car Championship, where he was a race winner.
But after those adventures, Zanardi, who is now 45-years old, started handcycling almost by mistake. In 2007, he finished fourth in the New York City Marathon handcycle class. The kicker? He only trained for four weeks. In his fourth attempt, he won the New York City Marathon.
His goal was to earn a place on the Italian team for the 2012 Paralympics in England. He did just that, and today his training came to fruition: Alex Zanardi just won the men's road time trial by 27 seconds.
Now, Zanardi was always known for his ebullient and effervescent personality when he was racing in the states. You know how racers celebrate a win by doing donuts and burnouts? Zanardi started that.
Since he lost his legs, Zanardi has been known as an inspiration to his fellow racers. He never let it get him down and he never blamed Alex Tagliani, the driver that hit his car and broke it in half, for the loss of his legs. He just continues to be positive and lead his life to the fullest.
As you'd expect, the racing community is overjoyed at Alex's gold medal. And, of course, they're lighting up the Twitterverse with their congratulations.
Alex Zanardi Olympic Gold & I can't stop laughing, crying, cheering. Purely extraordinary what he's capable of. I love you man!@lxznr— Mario Andretti (@MarioAndretti) September 5, 2012
Gold medal for Alex zanardi @lxznr !!!!Well done my friend.— Dario Franchitti (@dariofranchitti) September 5, 2012
Fantastic, Fantastic, Fantastic!!! Wohoo ZANARDI!!!!!! Congrats @lxznr. You are THE BEST!!!— Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) September 5, 2012
Jimmy Vasser was Zanardi's team mate during his championship winning years and now owns an IndyCar team. Apparently, on Tuesday night he promised Zanardi a car for the 2013 Indy 500 if Zanardi won gold.
The race took place at the Brands Hatch circuit in England, which is a track he had never won on before. Seems like he has something else to add to the old resume.
To see how Zanardi has overcome the extreme adversity he has faced over the last decade is incredibly satisfying and uplifting. What an inspiration.
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