- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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"Wait ... I know you ..."
The words rolled out in a thick Italian accent that, cutting through the cloud of noise that filled the terminal of Washington's Dulles International Airport. It was 2003 and I had just plopped down at my gate, changing planes and exhausted.
My eyes wearily worked the crowd, going from face to nameless face, before settling on a man sitting across the walkway. He was shaggy-headed and looked familiar. But before my brain could call up his identification, he beat me to it.
"I do. I know you. You worked for ESPN ... for 'RPM2Night' ..."
He stood, and if I hadn't already realized who he was, I certainly would have as he started to walk my way, somewhat bowlegged and wobbly, but yet somehow still graceful. He extended his hand and spoke.
"I am Alex Zanardi. I'm sorry, but I do not remember your name."
That was not a surprise. In the "RPM2Night" days I was a field producer and my job was to stand behind the reporters while they did the up-front work. It was the reporters -- John Kernan, Marlo Klain and their coworkers -- who made friends with the race car drivers. Not the producers.
But Zanardi was never a regular racer. From nearly the first moment he'd slipped into the cockpit of Chip Ganassi's now-famous red-and-yellow Target machine in the now-defunct Champ Car series, he won the hearts of American motorsports fans. He told great stories, he was always polite, and he was always quick to take an interest in everyone around him, even a lowly associate producer with a startup show on ESPN2.
I'd first met Alex in 1996, during his rookie season in CART. He was instantly likeable, but his hiring by Ganassi was a bit of a head-scratcher because he'd fizzled in Formula One. He did not fizzle in Champ Car, winning his first pole position in just his second start and eventually racking up three wins, running away with Rookie of the Year.
His teammate, Jimmy Vasser, won the championship, but Zanardi seized the title of series favorite through his fearless style (though that same style rubbed more than a few of his competitiors the wrong way). His deity status was forever cemented with his legendary pass of Bryan Herta in the famous Corkscrew of Laguna Seca (go find it on YouTube, you'll thank me later). Open wheel racing fans still call it, simply, "The Pass."
In three years of Champ Car racing, Zanardi won 15 races, two championships and a place in the hearts of race fans with his postrace donut burnouts. In 1997 I sat with Zanardi for his first baseball game. He sang "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" as the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team co-owned by Ganassi. Afterward, he looked to me and asked, completely serious, "What is a Cracker Jack?"
No matter where he was or what he was doing, he wore the same face-splitting smile. The same smile he now wore in a crowded, smelly airport terminal.
"Look," he said, snatching a massive military-style duffel up off the floor and yanking open the zipper. "I have something I want to show you."
Alex returned to Europe in 1999 for a second crack at F1. It didn't go well. After one year on the sidelines, he returned to Champ Car with his old crew chief, Mo Nunn. It went worse. On Sept. 15, 2001 in Germany, while the world was still reeling from 9/11, Zanardi lost both legs and more than three-quarters of his body's blood volume in one of the most horrific accidents in racing history.
Now, nearly two years after the accident, I was seeing him for the first time since the fall of '98. This was my introduction to the new Alex Zanardi, back from the wrong side of death and rebuilt through grueling rehabilitation and modern technology.
"This," he continued as he began emptying the contents of the duffel, "is my big bag of legs."
He showed me sets of legs designed for running and swimming and said that he was working on a set for cycling. He was, of course, wearing his walking legs. When doctors couldn't provide him with prosthetics light, fast and durable enough to do what he wanted to with them, he designed his own.
Then, in the middle of a laugh, he turned serious. He grabbed my knee. "You know, I'm driving a racing car again."
I did know that. That same year, 2003, he had returned to the track where he should have died, EuroSpeedway Lausitz, and drove a hand-operated sports car at more than 190 mph. Like so many, I found it inspiring but assumed that the story would end there. He clearly saw a familiar look on my face -- doubt -- and corrected me. "I want to race again. I am going to race again. People look at me like I am crazy when I say that, but hey, they have been looking at me like I am crazy my whole life, so why would I care about that?"
In 2004 he returned to full-time racing, driving BMWs in the European Touring Car Championship and eventually the esteemed World Touring Car Championship. He won four times. In 2006 he drove a modified F1 car. He also has a Zanardi line of karting chassis, raced throughout the world.
No one called him crazy. Instead, they were once again calling him fast.
We said goodbye that day in the D.C. airport and I didn't see Alex for another eight years. It was during his victory tour after winning the 2011 New York City Marathon's Handcycle division. In 2009 he had hung up his driving helmet for a cycling helmet. "This was not the ultimate goal," he said of winning the marathon in his fourth attempt. "The goal is to win in London next year."
On Wednesday morning he did just that, winning a gold medal in the Paralympic 16-kilometer men's individual H4 time trial. The race was held, naturally, on the legendary Brands Hatch Formula One course. Ten days shy of the 11th anniversary of his life-altering accident, a legless Zanardi sat on the racetrack and held his winning cycle over his head in triumph.
As I looked at the photos, I thought back to our brief airport chat. That day I was grateful for the chance or tell him that his story was the most amazing that I had ever had the honor to cover.
"My story is a good story," he said in agreement, repacking his big bag of legs before hurrying off to his flight. "The guy who came here with his briefcase and nothing else, other than dreams. It is what you would call the American Dream, isn't it?"
He shook my hand again, and turned to leave.
"Is it a good story to tell."
And it just keeps getting better.