Alex Zanardi woke up. He couldn’t move. Machines were hooked up to every part of his body. His whole body was in pain. Raw agony.
A week earlier, Alex could see his competition ahead of him from the seat of his Formula 1 car, but not for long. Soon he was ahead of everybody.
His car had been the fastest in practice at the American Memorial 500 CART race in Germany. And with 13 laps to go, he was telling himself, “I’ve won!”
He was on top of the world. He just had to make a stop in the pits before making the final turns to victory. It was quick, like any other pit stop in this race. He was in. He was out.
Alex was barely on the track when he heard the sound of carbon fiber being ripped apart from lightweight metal alloy. It was his supercar. Being torn into bits.
He had just been hit by another Formula 1 driver. At 190 miles per hour.
Alex heard an explosion. And then he heard nothing.
Waking up a week later in the hospital all he felt was pain. It washed over him like a wave of cold. Biting deeply into his nervous system.
He didn’t even know his legs were missing until his wife told him.
Alex always thought he’d rather die than live with any type of disability. Especially having both of his legs amputated.
But a funny thing happened.
After he was told his legs were gone, he felt something different. Surprisingly so. He felt thankful. Thrilled, even.
He was alive. Because he shouldn’t have been.
Alex had been in numerous wrecks before. He had broken more bones than he cared to count. But he had never been soaked in agony and pain like he was that day.
And for the next year as he recovered.
But every day, Alex woke up with the intention of getting his life back and with the intention of being positive.
He was bombarded by questions of what he would do next and whether he would race again.
Some days, all Alex really wanted, though, was to use the bathroom on his own — without having to rely on anybody else.
So he worked. And worked. And worked.
“You get the chance to take every day as a new opportunity to add something to your life,” Alex said.
He worked every single day. He went to rehabilitation. It was brutal — demanding massive focus, sweat, and pain to learn how to move the parts of his legs he still had.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left…
He figured out that he had to strengthen the rest of his body — because now, he would have to use those muscles to compensate for his missing pieces.
But Alex didn’t mind.
Instead of allowing himself to feel like he had lost something, he forced himself to see it as a new opportunity.
A new challenge.
So he set out to prove “that there are no obstacles for the disabled.”
Within a year, Alex was fit for two prosthetic legs that he helped design.
He had always loved the design side of things, so it only made sense he would have some input on his new appendages. They were lightweight and as comfortable as a prosthetic could be.
Alex continued with therapy each day, always with a light heart and a good attitude.
He didn’t let himself stay depressed like everyone expected him to. Instead, he adopted a new mindset.
He was determined to be grateful for the life he still had. And he decided that he would live it to the fullest.
And that’s exactly what he did. Day by day. Step by step. Piece by piece. Until the day he could get back on his feet.
And that day came. Alex Zanardi, took the first steps on his new legs. All by himself.
He was shaky. It was difficult. There was pain. And fear.
But still he smiled. And worked.
Less than two years after his wreck, Alex found himself in the driver’s seat of a custom-made BMW with gas and brake controls mounted on the steering wheel.
He looked at the same race track that almost took his life.
He wasn’t there to make a ceremonial round of the track. He wasn’t there for the applause or the pity. He wasn’t there as a publicity stunt.
Alex Zanardi was there to race.
Even when people questioned his mental state and his physical abilities, he insisted he was not at a disadvantage.
After all, his head had stayed the same. The only thing missing was a few feet.
Alex was back in the race. He didn’t win that day. It took two more years of trying. But in 2005, Alex Zanardi won his first race after returning from his crash.
But curiosity got the best of him. What else could he do now?
He decided cycling might be fun.
Alex started para-cycling — or hand cycling. He would use his arms to pedal and steer his bicycle. It was a great way for him to relieve his stress and to workout. It also happened that he was pretty damn good at it.
Alex had been racing almost his whole life — he started racing go-karts at 13. He had also been designing and building things his whole life.
Just as he helped with the design of his previous race cars and helped design his own legs, he helped design and build his own para-cycle.
He understood aerodynamics. And that gave him a competitive edge.
The first race he ever competed in, was the New York Marathon in 2007. He didn’t win. He did come in 4th. Not too shabby for a guy who just started training four months prior to his first race.
He was quickly asked to compete in the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, but he had to decline. He had already committed to the World Touring Car Championship for that year.
And when he found himself distracted moving between racing cars and racing para-cycles, he decided to retire from racing cars.
As he stepped down from one seat, he found himself comfortably seated in another one. The hand-cycle. His new passion.
Alex loved training on the cycle. Aside from being a great workout, it made him feel alive, which was all he really strived for every day — to be happy and thankful and alive.
That singular purpose paid off.
By 2011, Alex had won the New York marathon — the same one he had come in fourth place in just a few years earlier.
He also came in second at the World Championships. There was only one place left for him to go. The 2012 London Paralympics.
Alex trained tirelessly. When asked how he prepared himself, he said, “I put more effort in avoiding all distractions in my life.”
And it worked. Alex came away with 2 individual gold medals for Italy and was appointed as BMW’s global brand ambassador.
It would have been easy for Alex to hang up his cycling helmet and sit back and enjoy his accomplishments.
But that’s not his style.
Again, his curiosity got the best of him. He started wondering if he could be an IRONMAN.
An IRONMAN race consists of 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles on a bike, and 26.2 miles running. Alex would have to use only his arms for all three events.
For the bike portion, he used his hand-cycle. For the running portion, he had to use his wheelchair. The swimming portion he was on level playing waters, except for the missing lower half of his body.
His arms felt like overcooked pasta. But they were the only things he had to rely on for 140 miles.
But Alex finished the IRONMAN World Championship. He came in 272nd. At 47 years old, he was nineteenth in his age bracket.
Neither age nor disability was enough to slow Alex Zanardi down. He just kept pushing. Literally.
He pushed his para-cycling talents all the way to the 2016 Paralympics.
Alex Zanardi won another gold medal in Rio De Janeiro — on the 15 year anniversary of the day he lost his legs.
Alex is still racing. He competed in the IRONMAN 70.3 in Pula, Croatia less than two months ago. He came in first in his division and finished in less than four hours.
His life is an inspiration for anyone who has experienced the agony of losing.
Here are a few of those lessons:
- No matter how bad things look right now, you can turn them around. It requires daily progress and constant focus on getting to where you want to be.
- Massive change in your circumstances demands pain, sweat, and focus. You have to work hard to be successful.
- Being positive is a choice that you get to make for yourself. Even when things looked ugly you are in control of your mindset.
- Tough goals demand that you do hard things. So stop expecting that life will play fair and that people will do the right thing.
- The harder you fall, the more reason you have to get up and keep working. Make the choice to crawl your way forward — no matter how slow it seems.
- Anything is possible if you are willing to do whatever it takes. You can do anything. You can be anything. Everything is an option.
The hard truth is that winners don’t get a shortcut around tragedy.
They just go into it with the expectation that they have the power to change their personal circumstances. No matter how bad things can get.
They work and try and fight and scrap. Never throwing in the towel or expecting a break.
No matter where you are right now in life. No matter what you are going through right now. No matter how much your world feels out of control right now.
All that matters is that you are willing to get back up and try again.
That’s what winners do.
You don’t get a magic bypass around frustration and pain simply because you have big dreams.
Just go be awesome.
By the way, this story is ever so timely.
He lost his legs almost 20 years ago; but just a few days ago, Alex Zanardi, was moved from intensive care to a neuro-rehabilitation center in Milan after suffering a horrific hand-cycling crash in June, as he was training for this year’s Tokyo Paralympics before it was postponed due to COVID-19
Earlier this month, Pope Francis wrote him a letter, praising him for “living life to the fullest and for providing a lesson in humanity.”