RIO DE JANEIRO • Former Formula One driver Alex Zanardi won his third Paralympic gold medal on Wednesday, a day before the 15th anniversary of the Champ Car crash that cost the Italian both legs and nearly his life.
The 49-year-old won the 20km H5 handcycling road time trial in Rio de Janeiro to add to the two golds and a road team relay silver he won on his Paralympic debut in London four years ago.
He beat Australia's Stuart Tripp to the gold by just 2.74 seconds, despite being 10sec behind at the halfway point.
Since moving into handcycling in 2007, he has won six world titles.
"Normally I don't thank God for these type of things as I believe God has more important stuff to worry about," he told NBC television. "But today is too much. I had to raise my eyes and thank him.
"I feel very lucky, I feel my life is a never-ending privilege."
Zanardi, a two time champion in the US-based Champ Car series that is now IndyCar, competed in 41 grands prix between 1991 and 1999, with his final season at Williams.
He had both legs amputated above the knee, with his heart stopping seven times as he lost all but a litre of the blood in his body, after the horrific crash at the Lausitzring in Germany on Sept 15, 2001.
The Italian was leading the race when he lost control of his Reynard-Honda in the final laps and Canadian Alex Tagliani ran into him at more than 350kmh.
Zanardi, who had been read the last rites, returned to racing a year and a half after the accident and competed in the world touring car championship until 2009.
Two years after the accident, he returned to the Lausitzring and finished the 13 laps that he had failed to complete during the race.
"At the time I was asked if I would ever step back in a race car, but what was very important for me was to go into the bathroom and pee on my own, but I could not do that. I had to be helped," he said.
"That was my No. 1 priority. Day by day I managed to regain control and strength, regain some confidence and concentrate on different things and here I am now."
The victory on Wednesday was all the more special to him as it was achieved in the land of his idol, Ayrton Senna.
Zanardi raced alongside the Brazilian only from 1991 until Senna's death in 1994, but the inspiration has never left him.
"I followed Ayrton from the end of his karting career," Zanardi explained. "I would tell my friends, when he started to drive cars, 'Watch this guy, he is going to surprise you all.' He has always been my role model."