Alex Zanardi hit the headline this summer when he won three medals, two of which were gold, at his first Paralympic Games.
We caught up with him to chat about his time at the London Games, the move into hand cycling and what lies ahead.
- First of all congratulations on you Paralympic success so how did you find your whole experience in London?
Honestly, not just because I got my three medals, the Games were organised in a way that had never been seen before.
The passion of the people was something that impressed me the most as we had people cheering us at all the locations, not just at the stadium, and they were all packed with people.
They were probably looking for some inspiration but they were also enthusiastic about what they got to see.
So it was a great experience and an experience that will be a once in a lifetime experience and you can imagine how it has been for since I won two gold medals and a silver one.
- A lot of the athletes have talked about all of the support that they received from the crowds so how did you find the fans in London - Brands Hatch looked packed with spectators?
For me it was really special. One day I called home to talk to my wife and she was like ‘you can’t imagine what is happening here you are on the front page of all the magazines and all the papers.
Everyone is talking about what you did yesterday’ - and this was after the time trial. That morning I had seen the Daily Telegraph and my picture was on the front cover.
I went to buy some stuff and I had people and old ladies hugging me and stopping me - it was a great feeling I felt like I was one of the Spice Girls.
It was something that I just did not expect but it certainly was a part of my experience in London. Let me say that in my class and in my race there were no British riders and so I think that that helped a lot to get the crowd behind me as they had no one to cheer for - I was their pick probably.
- This was the first time that you have competed for your country at the Paralympic Games so how did you find being part of Italian team and representing your country?
When it all started three years ago this was my ultimate target - at the time I couldn’t really talk about a target but only about a dream - but it is important when you do things in life to have a horizon and to say ‘ok, this is the direction that I want to take.
And we will see along the way if there is a point where I can turn this dream into an objective or whether it will just remain a dream’. At the time for me to think that I could be part of the Paralympic Games was enough to make me fall asleep very happy because it was great dream.
But along the way it became more and more technical and real because I started to understand what I was going to experience once I got in London. But more than that I started to understand how big my chances were to be able to come home with a medal around my neck.
That is not to say I have been impatient to get to London actually the road that lead me to London has been the most enjoyable part of it.
London, to me, has been, in a way, a little bit of a sad experience in the sense that of course there will be other things to do with this sport and really I am like a wine that gets better with age that means I will be able to go to Rio de Janerio.
But I cannot imagine something higher than what I have experienced in London in my cycling career, I knew that that was going to be the case and I knew that I couldn’t go any higher than that and once I had the medal around my neck I felt that that was the end of the game in the way.
There are going to be harder things to do in my life and other challenges to tackle but at least that adventure of mine that I had imagined for so long was coming to an end.
Then you come home and you open the box with the gold medal to show someone who knows sport and you can see him touched and almost crying when he touches the gold medal and I would say ‘wow, you really take this emotionally’ and he turned back to me and said ‘Can’t you see it? What you have done is something that people would dream about for an entire lifetime and never get there. You have got three medals and experienced something that is the dream of many people on this planet’.
Then that emotion that you experienced at the beginning of your experience that later became much more technical and less spiritual bounces back to you once more.
You realise that what he has said is right and what you have done goes beyond any other sporting experience that I have been lucky enough to experience in my life.
If you look at the vocabulary there are some words which really need no explanation. If you look at the words Olympic Games it should only be equal to Olympic Games - what else do you want to say about the Olympic Games? So this is what I am experiencing right now.
- You won two gold medals in the handcycling event so how did you end up taking up this sport after your accident?
It often happens in life but you become curious enough to turn you head and look for things to add to your life. You have to understand really well when you start to lose something is ‘is it something that you want?’ or ‘is is something that life is forcing you to do?’
When you are at the beginning of your career it is not that difficult to understand this because being Alex Zanardi didn’t mean much more than being the sum of two great parents.
But these days I am offered so many things - I am not complaining as I am very lucky to be in this position - but if I had to all of these things I would end up doing so many things that I don’t have any interest in and I would do them badly.
The reason why I did well in this sport is because I think that I fell in love with it. When I took the decision to leave motor racing in favour of handcycling it was because I knew that could not raise my game in handcycling if I couldn’t find more time to train.
A lot of the outside observers surrounding my life were probably expressed scepticism for what I am doing because they said ‘come on you are leaving motorsport where you still get paid good money to do what you do in favour of something which really looks like the local race in the village against Joe Blogs.’ (laughs)
But that was important to me as I realised that it was a very interesting challenge and I realised that in my category the level was really high and it was it was going to be touch to achieve success in my class.
The beginning of the entire adventure was back in 2007 as I was asked to go to New York by my sponsor as they had this event in connection with the New York marathon and they wanted me to part of the party that they had organised.
They said that they want me to go and make a little speech and I was kidding at the time but I said ‘if I have to go to New York I might as well do the marathon.’
And he said ’come on Alex that is impossible’ and when they said it was impossible it made my fighting mentality kick in and it made me say ’ok, lets give it a shot and see’.
I wanted to see if it was impossible or not and I discovered in that incidental way a sport for which later I became passionate about. At the end of 2009 I realised that I wanted to do it more and with even more commitment. And the rest is history.
- The Paralympic Games helps put less well known sports on the map so what do you hope that London 2012 and your success will do for handcycling?
I don’t know if my success will do anything but I know that you guys in England have done a super job as the passion people had about Paralympic sport is what I believe to be the right one.
Sport for people watching and sport in general is an occasion to find the inspiration that pushes you to do more in your life and to take life as an opportunity.
And this is made clear by watching a top athlete when you don’t only feel the performance but you focus on the road that this man has covered in his life to build upon the talent that he has to achieve such a result.
It is also true that when you see people like Usain Bolt and you go ‘wow, he is like Superman. Even if I work my entire life I will never get anywhere close in terms of performances so it is a waste of time for me to do it.
But then you turn on to the Paralympic Games and you are still amazed by the final output and the ultimate performance achieved by the athletes but there you say ‘no doubt that that guy or that woman had a starting point that wasn’t any better than mine.’
But in reality they started much further back than a normal person and that is why I think it’s much clearer and more evident the reason to be inspired by that gesture - when you see someone with no arms swimming faster than a shark how can you not be inspired and wish to take your life as an opportunity?
You guys in England really understood that point well and that is why we had so many people watching our races whether Alex Zanardi is another plus in the equation I am glad.
I don’t take any credit for this but I am glad to be seen as an opportunity for people to communicate the right message. But the bottom line is the message has to be right and I totally believe that the message is right.
- Training and preparation are obviously key when you are getting ready for a Paralympic Games so can you talk me through you training regime?
When you see an amazing performance by an athlete you believe that the preparation behind that performance has to be the same. In reality there is no secret and you just have to do all of the things right.
You can’t only take care of one aspect as you can’t take care of the training without paying attention to you nutrition as your nutrition is just as important as your training, to a certain degree. You cannot believe that the same foods are going to be able to give everything that you need throughout all of your training.
In the morning you may need carbohydrates but after a long training session you need some carbohydrates as this is food for your muscles but you also need the brick to rebuild those muscles and this can only come from protein; whether you take powders or whether you like to bite a big chunk of Grana Padano cheese like I do. But it is important to know what it is that you need and when you need it.
- You have slightly touched on my next question really but I was wondering if you could talk about your diet?
The correct nutritional education is more important than we believe for a healthy life - let me also add that we have to not enjoy the taste of some food that we love.
There are foods and types of foods that are really tasty and very healthy as well but it is the correct measure is what helps us live a healthy life.
I think if I would Grana Padano cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner I would probably become too big to push a hand cycle. But there are moments in my daily life where this taste of this beautiful cheese that makes me happy - and there are other moments that my body can enjoy what is in it.
When I do a very long training session the amount of protein, the little amount of fat it has with a little amount of sugar with some orange jam is absolutely perfect if you eat it within the window of forty five minutes to an hour. It is perfect because that combination is giving you body everything that it needs to both feed the muscles and repair all the damage that you have done with the training.
I guess a little bit of culture to what we put on our table every day it is really important to help us live a better life.
- It has been over ten years since your accident so how hard did you find adapting to life afterwards?
If what you want to do in life is go from A to B in reality you can still go from A to B with your palms by pushing a wheelchair, with a couple of canes, on prosthetic legs, drive a car or push a hand cycle - there are many ways to go to B from A even if you don’t have any legs.
If your mind basically wants to go from A to B with your legs, the ones that Mother Nature gave you in the first place, and you don’t accept any other alternative after losing your legs then you are going to live a very empty life.
Luckily I am somebody who is much more interested to go from A to B rather than how I go from A to B and I think that this does answer the question.
- You were back racing in just two years so how much did sport and your passion for sport pull you through?
I have proved that I am talented enough to win races at every level because I have competed at every level of motorsport and with the right equipment I have been able to win.
So I am the same guy as before and if ever I would find, technically speaking, the opportunity to connect my brain with a car I don’t see any reasons why I would be a worse driver than I was before - it is my foot that brakes but it is my brain that makes that decision.
After my accident I had to learn to become self-sufficient again as I had to washed and helped and so how could that problem be my priority in my list of problems if I could not lead a decent life yet?
Once all these problems were solved my sporting passion was on the list of priorities and I was offered to drive a racing car from BMW Italy and so I did. I realised that technically that there was going to be a way to develop a series of controls that would allow me to come competitive and BMW offered to be behind that project.
I was able to join a very personal challenge for me and to become a professional driver again and taste success and that was great. When I won a race a lot of people were crying but I was not emotional because I knew that I could do it - it actually took longer than I thought.
- How did you find the transition into driving a car with hand controls?
In the beginning it was not easy - when I say the beginning I mean nit just the race car but also the road car. But I had to adapt my life, not just by the way you drive, but also the way you move and the way that you turn.
When I sleep in the night I always turn from one side to the other and normally you do that with your legs but, at the beginning, I kept waking up because the only way to turn around would be with my arms.
Now I don’t even wake up anymore as it has become so natural - as well as doing other things with my arms. This means that you come mentally much more flexible and you find rapidly alternative solutions to things that you would normally do with your legs.
So when driving I have developed the capability to adapt to new controls and new things much faster to what a normal person would do.
- Finally what's next for you?
I cannot answer this question because I have got too many offers (laughs) it is something that I cannot complain about but I want to make sure that I continue to chase passion and not ambition.
I am taking some serious consideration to returning to motorsport but I cannot guarantee you that this will fit in my life without upsetting the balance that I have.
Alex Zanardi is an ambassador for Grana Padano Cheese Worldwide
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw