Tom Degun: Why Alex Zanardi should be the 2012 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year

Thursday, 13 December 2012
Tom Degun ITG2When the 2012 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year is announced at ExCeL in London this weekend, there are unlikely to be any major surprises.

The great Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt appears favourite to take the accolade for a third time after he picked it up in 2008 and 2009. He would, of course, be a worthy winner having picked-up three gold medals at London 2012 in the 100 and 200 metres as well as the 4x100m relay to repeat his heroic feat from Beijing 2008.

Another of the leading contenders is American swimming icon Michael Phelps, who claimed six medals at London 2012 to take his overall Olympic medal tally to 22 to become the most decorated Olympian of all time.
 
usain-bolt-2012Usain Bolt is favourite to win 2012 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year

Amongst the chasing pack are likely to be footballers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel, tennis queen Serena Williams and another American swimmer in the form of Missy Franklin.

But one stellar athlete that I feel is likely to get overlooked for the prestigious prize is double Paralympic hand cycling champion Alex Zanardi, whose road to glory at London 2012 is far more remarkable than any other I have seen.

To quickly recap - the Italian was a top motor racing driver best known for his exploits in Formula One. He later switched to CART, where he was named Champ Racing Rookie of the Year, and had another stint at Formula One before returning to CART once again in 2000.

It was a year later, on September 15, 2001, that the accident that would define him occurred.

Racing at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track in Germany, Zanardi was leading in the closing laps. After a late pit stop, he attempted to merge back onto the track when lost control and spun into the path of Canada's Alex Tagliani.

His car smashed into the side of Zanardi's vehicle, severing the nose of the car in a sickening collision. Upon impact, Zanardi lost both legs (one at and one above the knee) as well as nearly three-quarters of his blood volume.
 
zanardi crashAlex Zanardi managed to survive a horrendous accident at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in 2001 but lost both legs

It was only rapid medical intervention that saved his life and he was rushed to a nearby hospital where further portions of his legs were amputated during three hours of surgery to clean and facilitate closing the wounds.

After several days, Zanardi was fitted with two prosthetic limbs and he began an ambitious rehabilitation programme, which amazingly saw him begin racing again with the aid of hand-operated brake and accelerator controls.

In a brave move, he returned to the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track to complete the final 13 laps at the circuit that had nearly killed him in 2001 and in 2004, he returned to racing full-time, driving for the BMW Team Italy-Spain in the FIA European Touring Car Championship. A year later, he won his first World Series race since his accident and it was not long after that he decided to take up the sport of  hand-cycling to keep fit.

He proved rather good at it and decided to enter competitions. A fourth place finish at the 2007 New York City Marathon after only four weeks of training showed him that he could become a major player in the sport and he decided to set his ambitions higher; targeting a place on the Italian cycling team at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Having booked his spot at the Games, the London 2012 venue for his sport was ironically announced as Brands Hatch racing circuit, where Zanardi had raced thousands of laps in his motor car.
 
Alex Zanardi 140313Alex Zanardi took up handcycling as a way to keep fit following his accident

I met up with the Italian at the racing circuit near Sevenoaks in Kent shortly before the start of the Games where he was training for the Paralympics.

The instantly likeable Zanardi told me there of his Paralympic ambitions.

"Technically, I think a medal is possible," he said with a knowing smile.

"If I give everything I have and keep training as hard as I can, I think I have a chance to end up with a good result."

At the time, it seemed unlikely.

But the fairy tale miraculously came true.

Zanardi created international headlines as he two gold medals the individual H4 time trial and the individual H4 road race followed by a silver medal in the mixed H1-4 team relay.

All this he did while making his Paralympic debut at the ripe old age of 45.

I remember well Zanardi's famous pose as he lifted his racing hand cycle shortly he crossed the line. And I also remember his emotional speech after he claimed the most magnificent of victories.
 
zanardi handcycleAlex Zanardi created international headlines by winning two gold medals at a silver at the London 2012 Paralympics

"This is a great accomplishment, one of the greatest of my life," he said "I worked very hard to get here and it was great to live such an experience at 45. When you are 20, you appreciate medals. When you are 40, you appreciate what you do every day.

"I have been really lucky to experience Formula One and motor racing. I didn't realise at the time, but I do realise now what a fantastic time of my life that was. And it is great to live it again here at 45. I am a lucky person."

A lucky person yes - but more than that an inspirational person who provided the comeback of all comebacks at London 2012.

Sadly the Italian is very likely to be overlooked for the 2012 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year.

But how wonderful it would be, on the biggest stage, to see Zanardi clutching the famous silver trophy of which he could not be more deserving.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames
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