Paralympics: Racing driver Zanardi wins gold, 15 years after losing legs

Alessandro Zanardi

Former Formula One driver Alessandro Zanardi won his third Paralympic gold medal on Wednesday, a day before the 15th anniversary of the Champ Car crash that cost the Italian both legs and nearly his life.

The 49-year-old won the 20km H5 hand-cycling road time trial in Rio de Janeiro to add to the two golds he won on his Paralympics debut in London four years ago.

“Normally I don’t thank God for these type of things as I believe God has more important stuff to worry about,” he told NBC television. “But today is too much. I had to raise my eyes and thank him.

“I feel very lucky, I feel my life is a never-ending privilege.”

Alessandro Zanardi

IMAGE: Alessandro Zanardi of Italy celebrates winning. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.

Zanardi, a two times champion in the US-based Champ Car series that is now IndyCar, competed in 41 grands prix between 1991 and 1999 with his final season at Williams.

He had both legs amputated above the knee, with his heart stopping seven times as he lost all but a litre of the blood in his body, after the horrific crash at the Lausitzring in Germany on Sept. 15, 2001.

The Italian was leading the race when he lost control of his Reynard-Honda in the final laps and Canadian Alex Tagliani ran into him at more than 350kph.

Alessandro Zanardi

IMAGE: Former driver Alessandro Zanardi poses with team owner Chip Ganassi during a presentation of Zanardi’s 1998 Championship winning Target Honda Reynard before final practice on Carb Day for the 97th Indianapolis 500 mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 24, 2013 in Indianapolis. Photograph: Chris Graythen/Getty Images.

“The car broke into two pieces, one bit of me stayed with the car and the other bit, which was my legs, went ‘arrivederci’ in the other direction,” he said before competing at the London 2012 Games.

Zanardi, who had been read the last rites, returned to racing a year and a half after the accident and competed in the world touring car championship until 2009, by which time he had taken up hand-cycling.

Two years after the accident, he returned to the Lausitzring and finished the 13 laps that he had failed to complete during the race.