No. 1: Alex Zanardi wins hearts in pole position

Twenty one years after competing at the motor-racing circuit as an F3000 driver, Italy's Alex Zanardi - who also raced in F1 - returned to Brands Hatch to light up the Games, striking double gold in the hand-cycling events. 31 Dec 2012
Alex Zanardi

Alex Zanardi

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Find out which other stories made it into the Top 50 Paralympic Moments of 2012.

When Alex Zanardi won the Paralympic handcycling race in Brands Hatch, he looked more like a racing car driver than a cyclist, getting out of his bike to kiss the tarmac before raising his it high above his head.

The image has become one of the most iconic from London 2012.

“I was already a very popular person, but what happened in London took my popularity to a level that I could never have imagined,” the 45 year old said.

It was not the first time Zanardi had competed at Brands Hatch, the London Paralympic venue for road racing, better known as one of the UK’s best-loved motor racing circuits.

The Italian first raced there in 1991 as a driver for the II Barone Rampante team in the Formula 3000, finishing second.

He returned again in 2008. This time, though, as a double leg amputee with an adapted car as part of the BMW Team Italy/Spain in the WTCC (World Touring Car Championship) and finished third.

But on 5 September 2012, Zanardi crossed the line first there, winning the men's individual H4 time trial in 24:50, 27 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, Germany’s Norbert Mosandl.

“The course is very tough," Zanardi said. "There’s not a lot of flat mileage – it’s either going uphill or downhill, but it suits my characteristics.

“As a double amputee, going uphill for me is an advantage in relation to my opponents.”

Zanardi had both legs amputated in 2001, after being T-boned by another driver during a CART race on the EuroSpeedway track in Lausitz, Germany.

The accident left him fighting for his life and having to undergo multiple operations.

Despite the severity of his injuries, he returned to motor racing pretty soon and started handcycling as a way of keeping fit.

“When in 2001 I had the great accident, at that point it certainly didn't seem to be one of the greatest opportunities of my life,” said Zanardi. “But looking back over the last 11 years, I have to say that my accident has become one of the greatest opportunities of my life.”

Zanardi also picked up gold in the 64km men’s individual H4 road race and his team won silver in the mixed H1-4 team relay. With three medals, his London success is something that will stay with him forever.

“It's at the top of the scale with many other great moments I've been lucky enough to live.

“It is perfectly fine for me to go back to normal life, take my son to school, things like that. But if along the way there will be a chance to light some more firecrackers, I won't hold myself back. It would be a shame to miss opportunities,” he added, with sights firmly set on Rio 2016.

Zanardi puts his success down to one key character trait: curiosity, which drove him to become passionate about hand-cycling.

“I'm a curious man, like a kid,” he said.

“I ended up winning in London because I love my bicycle. I didn't jump on the bicycle because I loved to win medals.”

He plays down his role in changing perceptions of people with an impairment and raising the profile of Paralympic sport in 2012, and says that finally people recognised Paralympians not as people overcoming a tragedy, but as elite athletes, achieving sporting brilliance.

“People finally acknowledged and understood that behind Alex Zanardi, Oscar Pistorius and a few others, there are an incredible amount of fantastic athletes who worked really, really hard in order to realise their objectives and fulfil their dreams of competing at the highest level.”

Zanardi also believes that London 2012's message of 'Inspire a Generation' came through in a different way through the Paralympics.

“When you see someone like Usain Bolt, for example, you say 'Yes, that guy has achieved something amazing, but come on, that guy for sure had something more than myself because that guy was born with a gift that I don't have.'

“But when you see somebody instead in the Paralympic Games who had clearly a much more disadvantaged starting point in comparison to the one watching the race on his television, then the inspirational factor is immediate. Because you say 'If that person has done so much in his life, I can do something myself.'”

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