LONDON (AP) — Alex Zanardi just loves to race. But what he really likes to do is win.
The former Formula One driver took the Paralympic gold medal Wednesday in paracycling — a hand cycle powered by the arms — at the Brands Hatch race track, posting a time of 24 minutes, 50.22 seconds.
The victory capped an incredible journey for the 45-year-old who almost died in a horrific accident at a 2001 CART race in Germany.
"It's an amazing feeling," a clearly exuberant Zanardi said. "I'm really, really happy for the result."
Zanardi celebrated by sliding out of his cycle and lifting it over his head with one hand and raising his other arm, fist clenched, to the sky.
It was unusual. It was on purpose.
"I'm Alex Zanardi," he said with a huge grin, his Italian accent dragging each syllable. "I always have to come up with something. I have a little bit of a big head."
Zanardi's journey to the Paralympics began at the American Memorial 500 on Sept. 15, 2001, at the Eurospeedway Lausitz in Germany — the only American-based series to go forward on the weekend after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Zanardi, a former two-time CART champion, had had a difficult season. He started 22nd in a field of 27, but the car was responding well. He was enjoying the drive, passing one car after another, until with 13 laps to go he was in the lead.
Zanardi went into his final pit stop and the crew chief waved him off urging him to "Go, go, go!"
But as he built up speed to get back into the race, the car spun out of control and he veered onto the track. Canadian driver Alex Tagliani, traveling at close to 200 mph (320 kph), could not avoid him. The reinforced carbon fiber cone of Tagliani's car sliced through the area beside Zanardi's left front wheel and cockpit, the weakest part of the vehicle.
On the track, Dr. Terry Trammel slipped and fell as he raced to the wreckage. He thought he had fallen in oil, but it was Zanardi's blood.
The crash had severed Zanardi's right leg at the knee and his left at the thigh some five inches above the knee. The driver's lower legs had disintegrated like those of land mine victims, said Dr. Steve Olvey, director of medical affairs for CART at the time. He had lost 70 percent of his blood, his pelvis was fractured in five places and he had a lacerated liver.
But Zanardi was alive.
At the hospital, Zanardi's wife, Daniela, told him he had lost his legs. But that was only part of the problem. He had been in a coma for three days, his heart had stopped at least once, and he was alive only because of the medical response to his injuries.