Motorsport: Zanardi an inspirational athlete
Alex Zinardi: An exceptional Paralympian
Like many others I have been watching those wonderful athletes competing at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Many receive acclaim for winning or over-achieving, and rightfully so but for others, the taking part is achievement enough — a result of years of struggle and incredible dedication.
I watched with fascination, almost reverence, as one swimmer, lacking arms and legs, came last in a race, many seconds behind the winner, but never giving up.
It was one of those moments when you find yourself yelling “Come on — go on my son — yeah he did it” and realise you have tears in your eyes.
Like any competition involving human endeavour, but especially those involving personal commitment and sacrifice, it is often wrong to single out the individual as all those competitors are trying for personal bests ... trying to beat not only all the others but themselves.
Italian driver Alex Zanardi of BMW Team Italy-Spain in action during the Brazilian stage of the FIA World Touring Car Championship at the Curitiba International Racetrack. Picture Getty Images.
Occasionally, though, individuals do stand out and grab the headlines either by their achievement, personality, reactions or simply because they say the right thing at the right time.
They are supreme athletes at the peak of their abilities and we in New Zealand justly celebrate the likes of Sophie Pascoe, Liam Malone, Cameron Leslie.
Once in a while one individual athlete strikes a particular, personal, chord and so it is with Alessandro (Alex) Zanardi.
Just to call him an athlete, which he very much is, seems strange because I still think of him as “Alex Zanardi, racing driver”.
He is a happy, typically Italian driver in the Formula 1 paddock prepared to talk with anyone and simply happy to be there.
After the usual junior series upbringing including Formula 3 and Formula 3000, Zanardi began his career in Formula 1 in 1991 which, although driving for multiple teams including Jordan, Lotus and Williams, did not bring much success. He moved on to the then-named “CART” racing series (Championship Auto Racing Teams) racing for the Chip Ganassi team, twice winning the title for Ganassi.
After a short break from the series, Zanardi returned to CART for the 2001 series and while racing at the Lausitzring “Euro Speedway” in Germany and returning to the track after a pit stop, he spun and was hit broadside by another car, severing his legs on impact, as well as losing 75 per cent of his blood.
Miraculously saved by immediate medical assistance, he began a long recuperation, during which time he designed and built his own prostheses to enable him to continue a racing career.
By 2003 he was back racing specially adapted touring cars, eventually winning multiple races and even went on to test a Formula 1 car a couple of years later.
He continued to have a career in touring cars and sports cars but also took up hand-cycling, which led him to win multiple world championships before entering the London Paralympics and winning two gold medals and one silver on the Brands Hatch racing circuit.
At 49, Zanardi again appeared at the hand-cycling events at the Paralympics, this time in Rio, again racing on a past Formula 1 race track called Jacarepagua — also known as “The Autodromo Internacional Nelson Piquet” — and again winning two gold medals and one silver.
His achievements since his injuries are too many to mention but the humility and dedication with which Zanardi goes about his life, a life many of us would simply have given up on, are as inspirational as it can get.
His life is the stuff of movies — and I don’t think it will be too long before that notion becomes a reality.