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Race car driver who cheated death wins 3 medals at Paralympics

Former racecar driver Alex Zanardi lost his legs in a 2001 crash that nearly killed him, but he never lost his love of competition. He took up handcycling and has gone on to become a gold medal-winning paralympian.

LONDON -- Eleven years after he was resuscitated seven times following a horrific 200 mph crash, former race car driver Alex Zanardi was among the athletes honored at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games on Sunday.

His return to the podium – winning two golds and a silver for handcycling - is one of many inspirational stories behind the competition.

The 45-year-old Italian triumphantly lifted his three-wheeled cycle with one arm after winning a time-trial at England’s Brands Hatch course – a track on which he used to race with four wheels.


In an emotional interview with NBC News, the ex-Formula One driver said his return to being a champion was not about victory but enjoying the long ride to it. 

Luke Macgregor / Reuters

Two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi lifts his hand-cycle after winning the Men's Individual H4 - Road Race at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

“I’m a happy man and I know that happiness does not come from a medal,” he said. “A medal makes the taste of the steak a little better.”

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It is nothing short of extraordinary that he is alive, let alone the winner of three Paralympic medals.

Zanardi's journey to the Paralympics began at the American Memorial 500 on Sept. 15, 2001, at the Eurospeedway Lausitz in Germany — the only American-based series to go forward on the weekend after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

Zanardi, a two-time CART champion, had had a difficult season. He started 22nd in a field of 27, but the car was responding well. He was enjoying the drive, passing one car after another, until with 13 laps to go he was in the lead. 

Zanardi went into his final pit stop and the crew chief waved him off urging him to "Go, go, go!" 

But as he built up speed to get back into the race, the car spun out of control and he veered onto the track. Canadian driver Alex Tagliani, traveling at close to 200 mph, could not avoid him. The reinforced carbon fiber cone of Tagliani's car sliced through the area beside Zanardi's left front wheel and cockpit, the weakest part of the vehicle. 

Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images, file

Crews help Alex Zanardi after his crash on September 15, 2001 in Klettwitz, Germany.

On the track, Dr. Terry Trammel slipped and fell as he raced to the wreckage. He thought he had fallen in oil, but it was Zanardi's blood. 

But Zanardi was alive. 

More London 2012 coverage from NBCNews.com

The crash had severed Zanardi's right leg at the knee and his left at the thigh some five inches above the knee. The driver's lower legs had disintegrated like those of land mine victims, said Dr. Steve Olvey, director of medical affairs for CART at the time. He had lost 70 percent of his blood, his pelvis was fractured in five places and he had a lacerated liver. 

His heart stopped seven times.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images, file

Alex Zanardi celebrates after winning the CART - Honda Indy Australia in 1998.

As part of his rehabilitation, Zanardi took up handcycling, which uses a vehicle powered by the arms that features two coasting rear wheels and one steerable front wheel. 

He heard about the sport by chance. Zanardi and another athlete had both tried to pull into a disabled parking spot, setting off a dispute as to who should get it. He saw the other man's handbike on top of the car and got curious.

“I don’t know why it happened but I don’t complain because I’m here,” Zanardi said. “Everything else was up to me, to change an adversity into an opportunity…and I think you can do that with everything in life.”

'Admiration'
He said the athletes in London - the biggest Paralympic Games in history – had demonstrated that their achievements are about ability rather than disability.

“I saw a woman swimming as fast a shark with no arms and I got [goose bumps], I got tears in my eyes – but not because of pity, but because of admiration.”

From a victorious blind runner to an archer who uses his feet, check out these images of athletes achieving incredible feats from the 2012 Paralympic games.

“At the end of the day, I didn't do this to win the gold medal. I did what I had to do because I was enjoying what I had to do and the results I had … was just a logical consequence of adding something every day to what I had done the previous day.”

Jay-Z, Rihanna and Coldplay performed at Sunday night’s Paralympic closing ceremony, whose highlights included a spectacular fireworks display and a heart-shaped ring of flame.

China finished top of the medal table, with 95 golds out of 231 medals. Russia came second with 36 golds out of 102 medals and Britain came third with 34 golds out of 120 medals. The United States came sixth with 31 golds out of 98 medals.

Only 18 months after losing both his legs and one of his arms in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, photographer Giles Duley has returned to work at the Paralympics. "I'm myself again," he tells NBC News' Baruch Ben-Chorin.

The London Paralympics sold 2.7 million tickets - almost 900,000 more than in Beijing.

"Paralympians have lifted the cloud of limitation,” London Games chairman Sebastian Coe told the 80,000-strong crowd watching the ceremony at the main Olympic Stadium in East London.

'Meet the Superhumans': Paralympians burst onto world stage

That theme was echoed by Zanardi, who spoke of the ordinary sources of inspiration that can drive humans to success.

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images

Alex Zanardi celebrates winning one of his gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympics.

“I want to want to share this great gift that I have with all the athletes, with all the people that do great things in life because we only need our eyes to catch examples… of great inspiration,” he said. “Not just athletes like me who had the opportunity and the luck in life to stand above all others, but also great mothers - they wake up in the morning, they are sick, but nonetheless they feed the breakfast to the kids, they take them to school and they go to work because there's a great family to feed. If we have eyes to see, we are surrounded by great examples which could be inspiration for us all.”

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Zanardi paid a tearful tribute to this father, who died in 1997. “It's amazing how much is anyway passed on into my, through my skin and into my soul, you know. I am my dad… and I miss him so much, and I know … that in these days he's just getting a pat on the back from all the mates he's got up there because I'm sure he was very excited for what his son did and … I just hope that one day my son will be the same.”

On July 7, 2005, the morning after celebrating the news that London would host the 2012 Summer Games, Martine Wiltshire lost her legs in the suicide bomb attack that rattled her city. But now, with grit and willpower, that nightmare has yielded a dream. NBC's Nancy Snyderman reports.

He added: “My dad told me that if you find some tail wind, life can be much easier - but you've got to be there waiting for it. If when the tail wind comes you are in harbor because you thought it was impossible the tailwind would come, you're not going to be that lucky b****** that gets it. So you have to work, do your part, work very hard to get out of that harbor. It’s going to be hard with no wind… but if then the wind comes there's no reason why even an old crashed boat can't win the race… you have to try to make what you can.

“Take every day as an opportunity to add something to what you've done the previous day  - this whether you have become Usain Bolt or whether you have fallen down and you are in a hospital bed with very little left. But there's something left and something you can use to compensate and to start again. And if you do it right it will for sure be very exciting.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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