An interview with Alex Zanardi Part 1 of 2 Toronto, Ontario, Canada (July 5, 2002) - Two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi made his first visit on to a CART FedEx Championship Series event since his September crash, meeting with the media Friday...
An interview with Alex Zanardi Part 1 of 2
Toronto, Ontario, Canada (July 5, 2002) - Two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi made his first visit on to a CART FedEx Championship Series event since his September crash, meeting with the media Friday at Toronto's Exhibition Place, site of this weekend's Molson Indy Toronto. What follows is a transcript of that press conference in its entirety.
Adam Saal: Alex is here to talk to us about the journey he's taken since September, and he's never at a loss for words. So, Alex, welcome. It's fantastic that you're here and it is uplifting for everyone. Tell us how you feel, literally hearing race car sounds and being with all of your friends:
Alex Zanardi: Well, Adam, first of all, thank you very much. It's great for me to be here. Not only it means that I am in a good enough condition to travel and take this kind of trip, but it's really great to meet and greet all of the people that have been so close for me during these terrible circumstances. I've always felt -- I said last night, I've always felt loved in America, in the United States, but it throughout these terrible circumstances, I felt even more loved, and for sure, I felt that all of that love was really coming from the heart of everybody. And so, that makes me feel very, very special. It makes me think that I must have done something good. It's obviously great to be here in between all of my friends and I'm sure I'm going to really enjoy this weekend.
Adam Saal: Alex, as we work hard and face challenges at CART that we openly battle day-to-day, one of our sayings is that "if you think you can or you think you can't, you're right." Talk about what you've gone through in the past couple of months and how your incredible positive spirit kept you going. You seem fine and you always seemed fine when we saw you, but how hard was it to get through some of the down time, and what got you through that?
Alex Zanardi: Well, it was obviously hard at the very beginning. But on the other hand, it was on the way -- the motivation, the hope that I would walk again on a pair of prosthetic legs, was really driving me a lot. And to a certain degree, ignorance was what was helping me the most because I'm a very optimistic person and I thought that I would have done amazing things on these pair of legs and I would have been able to do a lot of the things that eventually I found out I can't do.
But at the time, that was a great motivation for me. I thought it would have been easy. It would have been just about stepping up on it and go. In reality, I'm finding every day, it's a little hard sometime. You have to take time to do this and to do that, but for sure, my positiveness, my never-say-never kind of attitude has helped me a lot. And I think that's why only after such a short period from the accident, I'm capable to do on my own, basically everything that goes from being totally independent, putting my legs on in a very short time. And it sounds like it's nothing special, but I can guarantee you that I've met a lot of guys that understand what I'm doing; that after 20 years, they cannot put their legs on without the help of somebody. And instead, it only takes me five minutes in the morning. Yeah, sometimes I swear because they don't go in right, but most of the time, I manage to do my own things.
And also, when something doesn't go right, I guess the activity, the job that I've done in the past 20 years, I would say, come into play because under a technical point of view. Really, the human leg is nothing different than a car suspension, and so, there are a lot of similarities. It is basically a spring and a shock absorber package. So in that way, I do a lot of tuning myself. I'm going around with a 4 millimeter screw is always in my bag and all of the spaces and everything. And so thanks also to that aspect, I have been able to achieve in a very short time what other guys have not achieved in much longer.
But my plan is not to stop here. It is to improve even more, and so that's why obviously my focus right now is on to that. When I wake up in the morning I try to improve even better because this will improve my life quality. Nevertheless, I am really happy, because as I said, I am able to travel, I am able to go on my boat like I did last week in the family. I am not so far to chase the kids, actually. They backed the boat into the harbor and I was not very happy. (Laughs). Because I couldn't chase them fast enough, the engines were running and they put the engine in reverse, and so we backed the boat into the harbor.
But besides that, I'm really happy. After a middle point, I was really depressed, because when I put on these prosthetic leg, the pain was terrible and every step was a nightmare, and I was sweating -- to get from here to there, I was sweating like a pig. And so, it was hard. But after all of these, it's much better now and every day I make small improvements.
Adam Saal: Last night at the Molson Indy Gala, Alex reunited with some of his closest friends, former teammate Jimmy Vasser, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, as well as Dr. Terry Trammell. Was that the first time you saw all of those individuals since last year?
Alex Zanardi: Yeah. Obviously, everybody was very busy doing their things and I was very busy doing mine.
Adam Saal: What were the first words you set to Dr. Terry Trammell, who was with you on the day of the accident?
Alex Zanardi: I just asked whether he was proud of the job that he did, because if I'm here today, it's mainly thanks to him and Steve Harvey. For sure, I must have a very strong heart if it kept beating. But after all, I am sure, I am absolutely sure, that if I would not have received the best possible medical attention you could get in this world, I would not have made it.
Q: Do you have to make any special plans when you travel now?
Alex Zanardi: No planning. I just booked my flight through the travel agent and booked a ticket. I should have done some planning, because I always say, when they ask me: "Sir, do you need anything?" I say, well, just a wheelchair, in case, you never know. But then they always let everybody deboard the plane and then they go in with a wheelchair. The problem is normally I'm the first one that gets off the plane so the guy with the wheelchair is probably still coming and I don't see anybody, so I go.
In Heathrow, because I changed planes in London, I was the last gate at one end of the airport and I had to go all the way to the exit and then catch the bus to change. It's kind of ironic, but now that I would need things to be a little easier. It's like now, I wanted to go to the bathroom and on the other end of the building; so I had to walk all the way to go to the bathroom. But, it's okay. I can walk, I can do things. Certainly, I'm not really fast, but I can go wherever I want. Yesterday was a big test for me because it was by far the longest day I had since the accident, in the sense that I caught the plane in the morning and I kept my legs on all day and then I came in last night and went straight to the party. So I was very happy that I could do all that.
Q: Was it difficult after the accident to come back into normal life?
Alex Zanardi: Not really. As I said before, I mean, my optimism is what is driving me the most. Often I get asked from people, if my son was very, very important for me to find motivation to get back somehow. And quite frankly, yeah, my son is a gift from God. He's the thing that I love the most in my life. I love him much, much more than I love myself. But that was not the motivation. I mean, for me, just the fact to be alive is sufficient motivation to want to improve my life quality. So, my son, my friends, my family, are big pluses. You know, I'm a happy guy even without the legs. Obviously, I would be happier with my legs.
Q: What plans do you have for your immediate future?
Alex Zanardi: Quite frankly, I don't see anything in particular in front of me. But I don't see any particular barrier that would stop me to do things. I believe that if I would really have the motivation, I could come back and race again. I don't see missing my legs to be an obstacle so big that it would be impossible to overcome that. I think it could be possible, but, quite frankly, I got -- right now in my life, that's not priority No. 1. So I don't know what I'm going to do two years or three years from now. What I know is that I'm going to try to do whatever comes through my mind at that point.
One thing that I would love to do again is to go back and ski. I was a decent skier, and certainly, in that sport, legs are quite important; therefore, I've got to come up with something, and I'm already working on a personal project of something new that could be realized, to allow people like me to ski. But again, right now, the main priority is to enjoy my family, to stay with them, and to improve my confidence with this prosthetic legs, in order to walk even better than I'm doing now.
Q: What about your long-term plans?
Alex Zanardi: I don't know. I can coach. I don't know, really I have not posed myself the question because right now this question is not very important for me. There's so many things that I am doing already. Obviously, I'm trying day by day to personalize things around me, to improve my life. Like the other day -- obviously, I can still drive a bike. I have the license, but if I hit a red light, then I have a problem. So I either go straight or have a big problem. So that's why I bought a bike with four wheels and I'm planning to put my kid on it and feel the fresh air coming to my face, and maybe just go to the bakery and buy some bread with my son. Right now these are the things I want to do. I'm sure one day life will be boring with only these things and I'll come up with something else, but I'm not particularly worried about it at this point.
Q: What brand of bike did you buy?
Alex Zanardi: Well, they actually made me pay it until the last cent -- so I'm not going to give free publicity. (Laughter). But it's American, though. It's actually painted in the American colors, with American flag on the side, so it's pretty cool.
Adam Saal: In regards to coaching, Alex -- Alex is Italian, but France does need a coach; they let their coach go. So there's a job opening for you.
Q: How tough has it been just to get to where you are now?
Alex Zanardi: It's very difficult. When I was sitting in my hospital bed in Berlin, all of my friends were coming, and trying to be encouraging. They were saying: I've seen this guy without one leg and he was doing this and he was doing that, he was walking like you couldn't tell. I thought I could achieve that; I could walk in a way that nobody could tell anything if other people did it.
But then I came to understand that my level of amputation is unfortunately the worst one you can have. In other words, it's both legs, and both legs above the knee. Now, if you have one leg, you've got something to compensate for what you are missing on the other side; therefore, it comes a day where with only what you have, you can really conduct an absolutely normal life and have absolutely no down point at all. But if you have nothing, you don't have anything to compensate for what you're missing. So, that's why for me, it's obviously really difficult because my balance is really only based on the inclination of the foot and on the width and on the length of the foot itself, and I have to learn to stay on that little platform and to hold myself up with that.
Now, it's not easy. If I had the knee, it would be much easier. Actually, when you have your own knee, it's almost like you have your own leg. Think about if you walk with a ski boot, you don't have the heel movement, right? But after a few steps, you adapt, and with your knee, you do the rest. For me, it's a little difficult. Fortunately, obviously, I can improve even more, I can get even better, but there's always going to be a limit to where I can -- to the way I can walk. Like I will never be able to bound stairs putting one leg in front of the other. I always have to either pull my legs around or pull myself up on the handrail or push myself up with a cane. But nevertheless, I have something that I can use to walk and that's good. There's always two sides of the story. It depends on the way you look at it; the bottom could be half-empty or half-full.
For sure, it's a reason of pride for me when I go there to the center where I'm doing my rehabilitation to see that there is other people in my condition that in 20 years did not achieve what I have in six months. I walk much better than them. I put my legs up in the morning. There is a lot of people that they use their legs just to improve their look, really, but they spend their entire time on the wheelchair. Fortunately, that's not me. Steve was really worried. He called me and he said, "Alex, if you fly and you travel that long, I would suggest you take an aspirin to thin your blood, because if you spend a lot of time not moving, you could have a problem." I said, "Steve, this is not me. I move. Don't worry. I don't need an aspirin."
Alex Zanardi at Toronto, part II