Alex Zanardi 1 ()Alex Zanardi 1 () © Copyright

Alex Zanardi // Arms race

FS headed to Hawaii with Alessaandro Zanardi, former F1 star and now an inspiration to millions

FS is in Hawaii with wheelchair marathon racer and Ironman triathlete Alessaandro Zanardi, who is about to compete in his second Ironman world championships. 

He’ll have to pit body and mind against the most physically challenging single-day endurance race on the planet: 2.4 miles of swimming in the choppy Pacific, a 112-mile bike ride up and down the windswept length of Big Island, and a full 26.3-mile marathon to finish – all in one day, all under the beating eye of the sun in 30 degree heat.

It's a tremendous feat of endurance even for the most able-bodied, and Zanardi will do it all using little else other than his massive arms to power him through the ocean, to crank out the watts on a hand cycle and to palm his way to the finish line on an Olympic-style wheelchair. 

Zanardi’s life changed back in Germany, in 2001, when, while racing, he impulsively turned out of a pit lane and was hit by Canadian racer Alex Tagliani. The 200mph impact was so violent it ripped man and car virtually in two. 

"Having lost my legs has not made me a better or worse person,” he explains, “but I was forced to study and educate myself about new things. I treated it as a project.

"When I wake up I have a very strong interest in the things I do. Why? Because the things I do are the things I have decided to do in life. It's because it's in my DNA; I'm a positive guy and I'm an optimist. I've said 'OK, here I am, what can I get out of this?'" 

Alex Zanardi 3 ()


Following his accident in 2001, Zanardi’s first response was to return to racing. In fact, it took just two years for him to get back in the driver’s seat. Using specially designed prosthetics and buoyed by rapid progress in his ambitious rehabilitation programme, he returned to the Lausitzring in 2003 and ceremonially completed the last 13 laps of the race that he failed to complete two years earlier. 

He was so quick in fact, that if he had kept the same pace throughout a qualifying session on the German speedway, he would've placed fifth on the grid. Zanardi knew he wasn't quite done with racing yet.

Zanardi drove for Roberto Ravaglia's ROAL Motorsport team from 2004 in the European Touring Car Championship, before it was rebranded to the World Touring Car Championship in 2005 and has enjoyed the support of BMW Motorsport unequivocally, who have worked tirelessly to provide him with a car that he can race without compromising its mobility.

Racing cars fast since his accident has not been Zanardi's main pursuit, however. In 2007 he was convinced to take part in the New York City Marathon in the handcycle category, with just four weeks practice behind him. "I thought, why not?" he says shrugging his extremely broad shoulders. He finished 7th, and his handcycling career began in earnest. 

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By 2009 he had compete in the para cycle road world championships and stated it was his intention to race in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. At 45, Zanardi was considered by many to be a wildcard. Competing in the men's H4 road race and men's H4 road time trial (for paraplegics unable to kneel) at Brands Hatch, he won Paralympic gold in both.

And now, in Hawaii, Zanardi continues to break boundaries. His swim is a strong one despite his protestations that he thought he was going to drown – " I started to feel dizzy. I was very scared at that point, because I thought if I blackout here everybody is going to run over me and I am going to drown". His handcycle ride again looked good, but he bemoaned the vicious headwinds, which hampered him reaching a consistent speed. His marathon was an improvement on year before, but he felt it was laboured. 

Overall, he completed the race in nine hours and forty minutes – an improvement by seven minutes the year before. As he wheeled out of the podium area, people were quick to congratulate. "Man this is amazing," he says. "I come to Hawaii to do the Ironman and I can call this my job.” Hi message is to go forth and seek out inspiration every morning. So what are you waiting for?

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