Pope Francis has called Paralympian and former race car driver Alex Zanardi an “example showing how to begin all over again after an unexpected stop.”
Zanardi is in a medically induced coma after his handbike collided with a truck during a race in Pienza on June 19. He was airlifted to a hospital in Siena.
The 53-year-old was a former racing champion, having competed in Formula 1 and the U.S.-based CART series. He won the CART championship in 1997 and 1998. He had both his legs amputated after a series accident during the 2001 American Memorial CART race, which took place in Germany.
He returned to auto racing using modified vehicles on the Touring Car circuit, and began competing in handcycle events, winning gold medals for Italy at the 2012 Paralympics in London and 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Francis sent a letter to Zanardi on June 23, telling him that “through sport, you taught us to be protagonists of our lives, and making disability a lesson in humanity.”
In his short note, the pope told the Paralympian that he was praying for him and his family.
Francis also donated the jersey given to him by the Harlem Globetrotters in 2015, which has his name on the back, for an auction to raise money for the We Run Together charity to help the hospitals in Bergamo and Brescia hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Zandari had promoted the charity, and donated the body suit he wore during the 2016 Paralympic Games.
“Alex likes Francis, because he is very attuned to the direction of his pontificate, because he has transformed disability into a great lesson in humanity,” Father Marco Pozza told the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport.
The pontiff asked Pozza to deliver his note to Zanardi, who is a friend of the priest.
“The pope always tries to restore self-esteem to those in difficulty, to those on the peripheries. Because the real disabled person is someone who has no self-esteem,” the priest said.
Zanardi is expected to be kept in a coma for at least another week, and his doctors warn he may have suffered brain damage from his accident.