We The Italians | Italian sport: IronAlex, a sports legend

Italian sport: IronAlex, a sports legend

Italian sport: IronAlex, a sports legend

  • WTI Magazine #125 Mar 16, 2020
  • 87

If we all had two lives, it would not be enough to achieve the goals of Alessandro "Alex" Zanardi, one of the most famous Italian athletes.

54 years old, 14 world titles won and 4 gold medals at the Paralympics, a long list of national titles and international medals, some world records. An important palmarès for any athlete in the world: but his is worth much more, because he obtained it in two different lives. One with a suit and helmet on a racing car, the other with a handbike.

The first part of his life begins at the age of 14, when he starts racing karts in Castel Maggiore, a village near Bologna. In a few years he becomes one of the strongest Italian drivers and is chosen by a sponsor to participate in international races. In 1987 he races karts for the last time and in the European Championship he races against a young driver who would later become a Formula 1 legend: Michael Schumacher.

Four years later, Zanardi debuts in Formula 1 with Jordan, team that hires him to replace precisely Schumacher who had signed a contract to change team the following year. After four seasons in which he fails to achieve good results, Alex does not find a team to compete with, so he seeks a team to participate in minor automobile championships. In 1996 he lands in the United States in the Formula CART (later known as Champs Car, a formula often associated with the IndyCar) with the Ganassi Team and takes his revenge getting good results.

In 1997 and 1998 the exploit arrives with the victory of two CART world titles, a feat that makes him famous in the States and all over the world so that the following year he is called back to Formula 1 with the British team Williams, where he finds as teammate Ralph Schumacher, Michael's brother. It is a failed year, and for him also the last of his career in the World Championship.

2001 is the year of the turning point, for better or for worse. Back in the States he starts the season in the Formula CART with Reynard Honda without obtaining important results. After a few races he returns competitive and on 15th September 2001, in Lausitzring, Germany, he has a good chance to prove his worth. Thirteen laps from the end, out of the pits after the pit stop, he swerves with his car and the Canadian Alex Tagliani is not able to avoid him colliding at full speed with his car.

For Zanardi it's hell. The accident cleanly cuts both his legs and because of the blood loss, some doctors start to give up on him. Instead, the miracle happens. After six weeks in the hospital, Zanardi comes out alive even if without legs, and already the following year he returns to the same German circuit to run those last thirteen damn laps in a car specifically designed for him. The love for racing is too strong and so since 2005 he returns to race on a BMW in minor circuits.

But the 2001 crash has changed his life in every way: Alex decides to show the world that a man without legs can do incredible things.

He moves from Bologna to Camposampiero, a small village in the province of Padua, Veneto, back to walking thanks to the use of special prostheses and also beginning to use a handbike, training every day. In 2004 he makes his debut on his handbike at the New York City Marathon, finishing fourth. Also in New York in 2011 he sets the race record in 1 hour and 13 minutes, and the organizers refuse to register him in 2012 because he is too fast. But it's the test of 2004 that makes him understand the potential of a disabled athlete, and after that participation he begins to dream of becoming a Paralympic athlete in handcycling.

His rise is unstoppable. Since 2011, the year of his first medal at the World Paracycling Championships, he achieves one victory after another. At the Paralympics in London 2012 he becomes an international star of the Paralympic world thanks to two gold and one silver medal won at his debut in the competition. In these first ten years in the Paralympic world, Zanardi has won everything, becoming an unbeatable athlete.

So, at his moment, what does IronAlex plan to do? To try to excel in other sports. He dedicates himself to skiing for the disabled, but he hasn't managed to qualify for the Winter Paralympics. And then he decides to overcome all limits by taking part in the Ironman, the most grueling triathlon and sporting event in the world (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, 26.2 miles of running). Twice he is protagonist in the Ironman Hawaii, the World Championship of the specialty; then in 2017 he becomes a legend of the specialty setting the world record in the Ironman in Barcelona, Spain, where he wins in 8:58.59, becoming the first disabled person in the world to finish an Ironman in less than 9 hours. A record that he will beat again in 2019 in Cervia, Emilia Romagna, closing the Ironman in 8:25.30.

Is this the end of the IronAlex story? He doesn't even think about stopping racing and getting records, because his motto is: "There are gifts that life keeps giving me and I want to live up to 200 years to enjoy them all.”