It was 5 September 2012 and I was not having a good day at the office. It as the kind of day where I felt like I was impressing no-one and my self-esteem plummeted to new lows. The familiar “I am not performing or doing as well as I would have liked” dark refrain was firmly positioned in its usual place in my mind.
BUT, that day, an online headline drew my attention during the 2012 Paralympics in London. A certain Italian hand cyclist won gold and had formerly been a Formula 1 driver. I was intrigued by this athlete, who had lost both of his legs racing on the Lausitzring circuit in Germany mere days after the events of 9/11 in 2001. A newspaper hailed this feat as one of the greatest comebacks in history. I delved into the facts of his life and became immersed in the legendary life of Alessandro “Alex” Zanardi.
Pictures of the 45-year old champion, immediately after this gold-winning event, showed him beaming. Every fibre of his being, it seemed, screamed that he was wonderfully alive. Losing one’s legs in a traumatic accident like that would leave anyone scarred, possibly bitter and perhaps very afraid. Alex’s life captivated my heart and attention and forced me to examine my own life that day. So I had a bad day I thought, everyday had the potential to be a bad one for Alex but there he was: glowing, bicycle held aloft by his strong arms in triumph.
From my cursory observation, the story of Alex Zanardi reveals a man of incredible character and focus. He has significant traits and characteristics that have been honed over time, and on which he relies to be able to face the severe odds.
On his website at the time he said the following: “What I couldn't have known at the time is that my own type of amputation poses significant problems on the path to normal or at least acceptable walking and only rarely do patients in my condition manage to transform their prosthesis into an aid that improves their life more than a wheelchair could.” Yet Alex is able to ski, swim and race and none of these victories came about without exceptional effort and perseverance.
Alex is undoubtedly a gifted man. He is a double CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) champion, yet his Formula racing career was disappointing to him. He did not get all the results that he had hoped for. Still, he possesses the ability to rise up again and again, NOW albeit with prosthetic limbs. Alex has taught me that I have to get used to failure if I am to really excel.
He has also revealed that he eats well and is physically active. “I've led a healthy life, with a balanced diet and a well-trained body. When fate put me to the test, that's what enabled me to get over a trauma, which according to NASA, would have killed anyone.” Anyone yes, BUT not Alex Zanardi!
He has the uncanny ability to reason and solve problems and this phenomenal mental strength is illustrated when he says “fortunately it is in my nature to focus more on the things I can do with my new legs, rather than the things I could do before my accident.” Likewise, is his comment in is book, My Sweetest victory: “My strength has been in the way I viewed my situation from the very start. I see what happened to me as a problem to be solved rather than something to be suffered through.”
So often in the past I had made excuses about why things were not done and why some goals remained unachievable. However, when confronted by a Paralympics athlete like Alex, who performed at the apex of his abilities in a sport that he had taken up a mere five years prior, I was unable to entertain excuses like “I cannot do it” or yet another favourite, “I am too old”. The questions now became “What am I capable of?” “Why have I not reached even half of my goals with, arguably, more resources?” His story forcibly refuted some of the arguments that I clung onto so well over the years.
Alex’s heart stopped three times that fateful day in 2001 and he was not supposed to survive. Yes life had dealt Alex a rough hand but somehow he found the strength to rise again. In May 2003 he went back to that same circuit to finish the last 13 laps that he did not finish in 2001. I pondered about the races have I started and that I have not finished. I decided that I wanted to live the kind of life that defies the low expectations I have had to this point. I wondered about what I was doing with my life? Is worrying about my day-to-day problems truly living…
His accident has proved to be only a speed bump. Alex literally fell on his face as he learnt to walk again, yet today he is a double gold Paralympics champion, a television host, he swims, skis, rides mountain bikes and races still. Alex even dismantles and rebuilds his own prostheses. His life is incredibly full and in “My Sweeterst victory”, he says the greatest joy is not the return to racing but simply having the time to spend with his beloved son, Niccolò and wife, Daniela.
Alex does not see himself as an inspiration but for me on one day in particular and many thereafter that is precisely what he is. He has lived the kind of life that has challenged my rather tepid existence and has led me to make decisions to risk a bit more in life in general but specifically in the New Year. I am going to adopt a special “A – Zanardi” approach to setting reasonably high goals and look forward to seeing how I will attain them. In Alex, I will have a truly gritty hero to follow.
So today on the eve of 2013, what drives you? What speed bumps in life are not just threatening to slow you down but have the potential to take you out? What do you hope to attain this New Year? Hopefully Alex Zanardi’s life will encourage you and I to live a little, to risk a lot and to do it all with a positive attitude. After the accident people expected him to be downcast and glum. Not so Alex Zanardi.
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