Alex Chick

Heroes of 2012: Alex Zanardi

"I want people to understand there are no miracles in my life.

"It's true I had a big accident, my heart stopped seven times and the doctors gave me no chance of survival. The odds were 100 per cent against me. But here I am. And one and a half years later, the same people who shed tears because they thought I had passed away saw me back at the Lausitzring circuit doing more or less the same thing I was doing before. I can understand that from the outside this looks like a great miracle.

"It's the same when a guy one day quits motorsport and takes up hand cycling, which he has never done before, and two years later he wins a gold medal. To pick up a tough new challenge - people look at this, and it does look like a miracle.

"I am so pleased that these sort of fireworks have been able to shoot in my life and capture people's imagination. It becomes very inspirational, and I'm sure I would be inspired if I looked at it from a different pair of shoes. But as Alex Zanardi I know everything I've done, I have lived through it. It's no miracle."

You probably know the Zanardi story by now - a former F1 driver and double Champ Car champion, Zanardi lost both legs in a horrific crash at a race in Germany in September 2001.

He survived, and by 2004 was racing touring cars full-time using hand-operated controls. In 2009 he left motorsport to focus on his new passion, hand cycling. In August, aged 46, he won two Paralympic gold medals and a silver at London 2012 - aptly enough, racing at Brand's Hatch.

What made the Paralympics brilliant were the hundreds of athletes with similar tales - great tragedy, followed by triumph over hardship.

And amid all these people who had experienced so many bad things, not a shred of self-pity.

We get accustomed to feeling sorry for people with disabilities - probably too accustomed - but here were athletes to be roared on and admired like any other sporting hero.

To pluck one example from many; when you saw David Weir storm to four gold medals, you didn't care that he was in a wheelchair - just that he was in the fastest one.

Like many who have overcome adversity, Zanardi talks passionately (and he certainly talks - in our interview we get through six questions in half an hour) but also rationally with a certain hard-headedness.

Take this analysis of his London 2012 success:

"I can guarantee you that had I not been completely satisfied by making the attempt, I would not have got the results I had.

"The results are just the logical consequence of how enjoyable it was for me to do what I was doing.

"I simply know I'm a lucky person. Even if I had not won the medals, even I nobody had been watching what I was doing, I was still enjoying myself very, very much. And that's why I ended up with a big medal in my hand."

What appears to us a tale of limitless romance is actually just "the logical consequence" of a process.

This ability to look at situations in a detached, analytical way served Zanardi equally well as a racing driver career and in preparation for London 2012.

"During my motorsport career I spent a lot of time in the workshop talking to the mechanics and engineers," he says. "My obsession was always to make my racing car faster because of course that would make my job much easier.

"The conversations I had with Maurice Nunn, my technical director at (Champ Car team) Ganassi (Racing) were among the most enjoyable time of my racing career. I guess in our conversations we built at least 50 per cent of the success that I enjoyed on many Sunday afternoons.

"My hand cycling adventure was very similar one. The main difference was that in this second adventure I was much more on my own in terms of developing this vehicle.

"All those hours spent after training in my little wood house in my garden just simply watching my bicycle and thinking and thinking and thinking and trying to imagine how to improve my sitting position, moving my cranks, making them longer, shorter, wider, narrower, higher, lower, changing the inclination of my seat.

"All that stuff was at least as important as my training in helping me to achieve the great success I had in London."

That is not to say Zanardi does not acknowledge his status an inspirational figure - just that he is one of many; one who happens to stand under a public spotlight.

He explains with an anecdote: "One day during my rehabilitation I met a guy. I didn't even know what he was doing at the rehab centre, but we had a coffee and talked about motorsport.

"Two hours later I saw him with a little child in his arms and he was crying while looking out of the window. I went to see him and asked if everything was OK.

"He just turned around with tears in his eyes and said: 'Everything's not just fine, it's great. My baby was born with no legs, and she has reached the age when they can fit her with prosthetic legs. Today the doctors picked her up to stand for the very first time and they asked me where her shoes were. And I realised that up until today I had never bought my daughter a pair of shoes, and I had to rush out to get some. When I saw her standing with her new shoes I was the happiest man in the world.'

"It was hard for me not to start crying immediately but a few minutes later I found myself alone in the bathroom and I looked at myself in the mirror. I said: 'You should never shed a tear about what happened to you, because you're a lucky bastard compared with this great guy you just met.'

"We are surrounded by so many wonderful people who are so inspiring for us. Maybe there are lucky bastards like Alex Zanardi who are on television and in magazines every day - but we are not the only ones. It's up to us to be inspired by people. That's the only credit I can take."

Zanardi credits his amazing achievements to his "flexible neck" - the ability to look around and see new opportunities and challenges.

That neck has swivelled in the direction of Sochi in Russia, where the 2014 Winter Paralympics take place.

Asked in what sport he would compete, Zanardi is cautious.

"We are just speculating here," he says. "If we were sitting in the pub having a beer and talking about dreams, my answer would be Nordic skiing, cross-country.

"That could see me take an advantage from what I have been doing in hand cycling, which would give me a much better starting point to become competitive."

At this point he confesses that, although he is a keen Alpine skier, he has never even tried the Nordic version.

Crazy. Less than a year and a half until the Winter Games, and Zanardi is considering starting a sport from scratch and competing at the highest level. Even crazier, you totally believe he can do it.

And if he does, make sure you don't call it a miracle.

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Eurosport-Yahoo! has been campaigning for Alex Zanardi to win the BBC's Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award.

He sent this message to everyone who has supported the campaign:

"The fact that so many people are not only supporting me, but also acknowledging what I have been doing with so much enthusiasm and admiration - it really means a lot. In life, if there comes a day when we cannot share our emotions with others they really mean nothing. I know that all the compliments and credit people give me go far beyond what I really deserve. Just to be in the position where people are proposing me as one of the most representative athletes of the year is an immense personal gratification. Of course, it's quite rhetorical, but I must say thank you very much!"

Find out if Alex wins on Sunday night from 19:30 on BBC One.


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All week we are running articles on the sporting heroes of 2012:

Andy Murray

Laura Trott and Jason Kenny

Didier Drogba

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Alex Chick - @alexchick81