By Michel RosePADUA, Italy, May 25 (Reuters) - "The car broke into two pieces, one bit of me stayed with the car and the other bit, which was my legs, went 'arrivederci' in the other direction. And that's how I won the tickets to London 2012," says Alessandro Zanardi with a wry laugh.
Nobody gets to the Olympic or Paralympic Games without huge determination, but the 45-year-old Italian's obstinate refusal to give up is jaw dropping.
Zanardi has gone from Formula One driver to Paralympics hopeful in a life scarred by tragedy from the death of his young sister to a horrific race car accident which severed his legs.
Nothing has quelled his desire to compete and now he is heading to London as a member of the Italian handcycling team.
Zanardi was leading a Champ Car (CART) race at Germany's Lausitz track in 2001 when he lost control of his red Reynard-Honda in the final laps and Canadian driver Alex Tagliani ran into him at more than 350 kph (220 mph).
It was four days after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, and organisers had wondered whether to cancel the race in honour of the victims.
"We decided to run, that it was the best way to react to what had happened, to move on, to prove that humankind is stronger than that and has this great ability to overcome difficulties," Zanardi remembers in an interview with Reuters.
After organisers decided to strip the cars of their sponsors logos and display U.S. flags instead, rain storms threatened to stop the event.
"A lot of things were really strange, didn't seem to be normal," says Zanardi, a two times CART (now IndyCar) champion.
But as the sky "magically" cleared just hours before the start, Zanardi took his place for the event that would change his life in the most horrific way.
After a good start, Zanardi left his competitors trailing. He took a final pit-stop, which went smoothly, seemingly guaranteeing him a place on the podium.
"But as I rejoined the circuit, something happened. I lost control of the car, going back into the acceleration lane, and ended up standing still in the middle of the racing lane. The first car went by and was able to avoid me," he added.
"The second didn't."
Medics were there within seconds of the crash, but Zanardi had lost almost three quarters of his blood by the time a helicopter took him to a hospital in Berlin, some 140 km (90 miles north).
"My heart stopped seven times, I was given the last rites by a priest. If you had to find a word, the closest thing would be 'miracle,'" he said.
"But I don't think it was a miracle. It was a great gift that I was given by these amazing men who saved my life."
If his survival was a miracle, Zanardi was particularly unlucky in the way the crash happened.
"It was a coincidence, but he hit me with one of the strongest and sharpest parts of the racing car, the nose, into probably the most vulnerable part of (my) car, which is right behind the front wheel.
"So basically, he just punched a hole in my car and broke it in two pieces."
DESIGNED PROSTHETIC LEGS
After the accident, Zanardi undertook an ambitious rehabilitation programme with two prosthetic limbs he helped design.
"I always loved to work myself on the machines I was driving. Sometimes the mechanics would let me do a little bit, sometimes they wouldn't, because they wouldn't trust me," he laughs.
"But that attitude helped me a lot with the rehabilitation. When I came out of the Berlin hospital, I could not wait to understand how a pair of prosthetic legs would work and how I could adapt them to my own needs," he said.
When his own young son begged to go swimming, Zanardi designed legs suitable for the pool, covering them with a special open-cell sponge used inside racing car fuel tanks.
"The innocence of a kid who doesn't understand that his dad ... feels embarrassed to go to the swimming pool in a wheelchair.
"So, I wanted to protect myself from feeling embarrassed but I also wanted to make my son happy," Zanardi said, adding that his design has now been used for other disabled patients.
Winning widespread praise for his recovery, he returned to racing only a year and a half after the crash. In 2003, he went back to Lausitz to drive the course he had nearly died trying to complete in 2001.
He continued in the World Touring Car championships until 2009, by which time he had taken up handcycling.
NEW YORK MARATHON
Last year, at his fourth attempt, he won the New York City handcycle marathon.
Zanardi recalls how before the crash he and some friends watched "Born on the Fourth of July", in which a character played by Tom Cruise returns from Vietnam paralysed from the chest down.
"Finding myself in this situation, what would I do?" Zanardi said he asked himself at the time.
"And the answer was 'I would kill myself immediately'. But when I woke up after eight days, that was definitely the last reaction that went through my mind."
As Italians suffer a deep economic crisis which has provoked a surge in suicides among businessmen, his story in London this year could help lift the spirits of a nation.
"If somebody, in the difficult circumstances our country is facing right now, finds a little inspiration in me, I'm not only pleased, but touched," he said.
"I guess what you can see in what happened to me, is that really, you can find good things in every day of your life... every day can be a new opportunity to add something to your life," Zanardi said.
"The fact that I've been able to qualify and to represent my nation in the next Olympic Games, it's something that I will forever tell my friends and my grandchildren, if I will be lucky enough to have some, one day. Having them sitting on what is left of my legs, I will say 'You know, Grandad went to London and did this and that'."
(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Barry Moody) ((firstname.lastname@example.org)(+393400575240)