CHAMPCAR/CART: Conversation with Alex Zanardi 2002-02-19

Exactly five months to the day after his accident in Germany, Alex finished "the first and by far the most difficult chapter" in his "return to a normal life," and that "all of the chapters from now on are very short ones." Alex returned his...

Exactly five months to the day after his accident in Germany, Alex finished "the first and by far the most difficult chapter" in his "return to a normal life," and that "all of the chapters from now on are very short ones."

Alex returned his home in Monte Carlo last Friday after six weeks of intense rehabilitation at the INAIL Medical Center in the Italian town of Budrio, near his hometown of Bologna. His basic routine was physiotherapy from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Monday through Friday since the first week of January, and doctors say he is a good five months ahead of schedule in the rehabilitation process as he left the facility. He is up and around and walking, sometimes "kilometers in a day." He has not yet put his son Niccolo up on his shoulders, as was one of his first stated goals after the accident. But he is very much self-sufficient. In the last six weeks, he has progressed through multiple sets of artificial legs. He will visit the medical center perhaps two days a month for this point forward to check on the progress of his walking, as well as the functionality of his artificial legs. Alex would very much like to visit his "CART Family" at the Long Beach Grand Prix in April, but is weighing that decision day-to-day and will make a final decision perhaps in a month or so.

Below is text from a conversation with Alex this morning (Tuesday, February 19, 2002) for your enjoyment.

"I'm back home in Monte Carlo, basically taking advantage of all the things I have learned in the last six weeks, and utilizing those things in my journey back to a normal life. I'm certainly not very fast, but I'm conducting a normal life and I'm really, really happy about that. Right now, my day is about going to the supermarket, going to the bank, going to pick up my son at school. Just yesterday, I bought my first pair of shoes since the accident. A pair of sport shoes, nothing fancy. Right now, normally you go into the store and check the comfort of the shoes. I go in and check the mechanics of the shoes, to make sure I can walk in them. It was a little embarrassing, at first, because the lady in the shop didn't know anything about me. So I had to explain a little bit. I was served. I had what I wanted.

"It will never be exactly as it was before, but if I work hard, we'll get close. I've been through many, many sets of artificial legs. The ones I'm wearing now are, basically, two pieces. One piece is made of a special plastic similar to Teflon, and another piece which is the frame, which is the stiff part, which is outside. The frame was made a few weeks ago and the inside has been adapted to it as we went along. It's easier to adapt the inside, to modify the mold, and put this outside piece on it. You heat it up and it will shrink a little. They change the shape, not dramatically, but to be the way you want. The frame outside is a little bigger. It has spacers to keep it in place. I'm going to go back and make a new frame for the molds and it should be ready for when I go back. That's the way it goes.

"For sure, in the first year, I'm going to go back to this center many, many times, just to do this and that, just to make slight modifications to my artificial legs, or to get new things that I need to do something in particular. Eventually, I'm just going to go less and less for checkups. The good thing is that the toughest part is behhind me, which was to learn how to use and how to walk with the legs and how to walk correctly. Now, it's just to go back and make sure, on my own, that I haven't developed any bad habits, so I'm still doing all the movements in a correct way. It'll take, for sure, some more time before I can say I don't have much to learn anymore. I still have a lot to learn, but nothing that cannot be learned by living a normal life. Obviously, it's just like skiing. You put the skis on the first time, and it feels like it's impossible that you can ever do anything close to what you see on television when athletes come down the runs. But then, eventually, if you have a certain aptitude, you develop control. But the learning curve never really reaches a flat spot ... you're always learning. Eventually, you come to a flat spot, but you can always do even better and better and better. Right now, every day I learn something.

"The other day I drove from Bologna back to here. It was great. I went and bought a sandwich, and I filled the car with gas ... all the things when people stop and see me they say 'wow.' They think of me as a guy who just five months ago lost his legs and was closer to death than to life, and they see me at this point doing quite well. I understand that for people who haven't seen me in a long time, that's impressive, and I'm proud of that.

"I'd love to go to Long Beach. I would love to go. The only problem right now is that I am only at the beginning of my rehab. I am four or five months ahead of where I should be, but it's also true that my legs, my limbs, were badly hurt just not so long ago. So, there are days when everything is perfect, where I can walk kilometers and stay on my legs all day long. Yesterday was a good day. I went on my own to a big sports store with escalators and I went up on my own. Later I went to pick up my son. Later in the day I went to Venti Milla, the village in Italy just across the border, to do some shopping. It was a good day and I wore my legs all day. But just the day before I had pain in my left leg due to a process that is evolving called calcification, and sometimes it hurts very badly. So, those days, it's hard to take just a few steps. Other days, it's funny because I put my legs on and they don't feel right, and this thing can last the entire morning. It's a normal part of the evolution I am going through. Unfortunately, right now it's not predictable when these days will happen. This is the reason I hesitate to take a trip for so long.

"The good thing is that I've turned the first page of that book. Actually, I've finished the first chapter. All of the others are very, very short. So when I go back, it's going to be very, very short. Not two months like it was this time. I've learned the basics. It's now up to me to develop a normal life. Otherwise, I only go back to the medical center if I need something, technically, or if I need new components.

"I think, for sure that's been great. I've played a role in my quick recovery with the fact that I've been able to come back, to help develop my own artificial limbs. Sometimes you try really hard to do something, like walk without crutches, and you don't succeed. And then, eventually, you give a turn of a screwdriver to your knee and, magically, it works. And now I can walk without crutches. I'm just going around with a cane for more comfort and more safety, so I don't do anything silly. If I wanted to go around without a cane, it's a great achievement in the game. I'm developing my equipment. I'll probably be able to do that more and more and more. The fact that I've faced the tuning of my legs in a way, at the same level of, developing a race car, it's helped a lot. Now, I know a lot of things about not only mechanical knees or the way they work, but, for instance, how to change a foot. It sounds funny, but it makes so much of a difference. After a few weeks of rehabilitation, it was per my request that I try a different foot with the characteristics that I wanted. I made a huge step forward thanks to that. Just by changing the flexibility of a foot, in a particular part, I wanted it to be more flexible. I was able not so much to improve my walking on a hard surface, but to do stairs, and especially to walk on grass, where the surface is a little rough. It was a difference like night and day whether I could be totally independent and walk in a perfectly safe way, where before I always had to have my physiotherapist with me all the way. What I'm saying is that sometimes the components, they make a big, big difference. I think my quick, quick recovery is because I was able to talk to the technician."

-mnr-

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Series Formula 1 , IndyCar
Drivers Alex Zanardi