"I love Rio, I use to come over in the late 90s for the Indy Car race, which I never won," he told rio2016com in an exclusive interview. "It was the same with Brands Hatch: it was a circuit I always loved, performed really well on, but never enjoyed the pleasure of winning a race there on four wheels. I had to go back with my handcycle to correct it. I hope it will be the same case in Rio, as the Olympic Village will be close to the area where they used to have the oval circuit on which I competed with my Indy Car."
Indeed, Barra Olympic Park, the main venue cluster for the Rio 2016 Games, is being constructed on the site of the old Rio Autodromo (racing track) where Zanardi so loved to compete. The athletes' village is a stone's throw away. "Isn't this a sign?" said the Italian.
Zanardi won the New York marathon before focusing on the London 2012 Games (Photo: Getty Images/Bryn Lennon)
Nobody would write off Zanardi, who competed in Formula 1 and the American Indy Car series until the shocking crash that sliced his car in two at the Lausitzring circuit in Germany on 15 September 2001. His injuries were so severe that he was given little chance of survival. He lost 70 per cent of his blood and his heart stopped seven times. He was read his last rites on the helicopter ride to the hospital.
"It took me one year to really complete a rehabilitation process where I could use my prosthetic legs efficiently," Zanardi said. "Everything else came after, as only then could I finally focus on my passions.
"I never considered quitting sport. Even in my hospital bed right after the accident, I knew I was mentally the same driver and athlete as I was before losing my legs. Of course, also knew that legs are given to us by Mother Nature for a reason, so I had to investigate the possibility of using my talents in an alternative way."
Zanardi returned to motor racing less than two years after his accident, competing for BMW in the FIA World Touring Car Championship from 2003 to 2009. His vehicle was fitted with pedals that worked with his prosthetic legs, and he won four races.
"Even my wife doubted I was doing the right thing."
His career in cycling began with an invitation to promote the 2007 New York Marathon, which he accepted on the condition that he could enter on his bike. He finished fourth, and four years later, he won the same race. In the meantime, he had declared his intent to represent Italy at the 2012 Paralympic Games. In London, racing against competitors who were in some cases half his age, the 45-year-old won the individual time trial H4, the individual road race H4 and was part of the silver-medal winning team in the mixed relay H1-4.
"When I dumped motorsport in order to increase my preparation for para-cycling, even my wife doubted I was doing the right thing," he said. "But the bottom line is that the ‘right thing' doesn't exist, or at least it changes according to what we really want to do. Through my life I have learned to synchronize my brain to my heart's wishes and not the other way round.
"Winning in London was great, but the three years of preparation leading up to the Games were the real value because I was living my passion, doing what I really choose to do. I didn't jump on my bike because I wished to win in London, I won because I simply wanted to ride my bicycle."
‘I never considered quitting sport,' said Zanardi (Photo: Getty Images/Bryn Lennon)
Understandably, Zanardi has been described as a role model and an inspiration. While he does not afford himself any special status — "I don't have neither the right nor the duty to feel special," he says — Zanardi does acknowledge that his story may have the power to help other people get through dark times.
He recalled that while it helped to have doctors tell him he would pull through, this was nothing compared to hearing the same thing from people who had been in similarly bleak positions as him and had managed to get through rehabilitation. "I guess this is what I am for a lot of people: someone who suffered but came back to a great life, proving it possible," he said.
Zanardi is now looking forward to his next challenge: the Rio 2016 Games, which he believes will have their own special flavor. He believes Brazilians and Italians are very similar — "We like to act professionally, but with a smile on our face," he says — and expects next year's event to be characterized by the colorful, positive spirit of the host population.
"London left a difficult example to follow, but it would be a mistake to try to be better than the British by copying what they did," he said. "You have to be different, you have to be original, and Brazil is the country which can really accept and overcome this challenge."