Alex Zanardi
AP

Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

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SIENA, Italy — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

River swimming, Zwift, indoor tennis; Paralympians find unique training amid coronavirus pandemic

Sophia Herzog
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NBCSN presents two nights of Paralympic programming in primetime on Wednesday and Thursday, looking back on champion performances from the Rio Games. Meanwhile, U.S. hopefuls for Tokyo found unique ways to train amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A look at how athletes adapted in four different Paralympic sports … 

Swimming: Suiting up in the Arkansas River
Paralympic silver medalist Sophia Herzog went from swimming nine times a week at the Salida Rec Center in Colorado to once a week in the Arkansas River. “The whole point in swimming there is actually just to keep the feel of the water,” she said. “You lose that about a day and a half of being out of the water.”

Herzog’s primary exercise after her pool closed became cycling. But, around a dozen times this spring, she zipped on a wetsuit and plunged into 50-degree water for 30-minute sessions. She fought a current, while keeping her head above water as much as possible. She had to watch her surroundings to avoid the rafters, kayakers, big sticks and dogs coming downstream. Her boyfriend became her lifeguard.

Track and Field: Partners Separated
David Brown won a Rio Paralympic 100m title with guide runner Jerome Avery at his side. They’ve been together since February 2014, highlighted by Brown becoming the first totally blind athlete to break 11 seconds in the 100m. But they were separated in March when the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., closed to resident athletes. As weeks turned to months, Brown and Avery realized they had not been apart for this long in more than six years.

“Since David abandoned me,” Avery joked, “I went and got a pet.” A 4-month-old Cane Corso named Apollo.

Brown moved from the OTC to rent a room with a family, 30 minutes away from Avery’s residence. He began running grass-field sprints and jumping rope at a park, with his girlfriend, an archer, assisting. When he trained with Avery six days a week, Brown could sprint 150 meters on a track. Without him, at the park, his girlfriend claps, and Brown can run 80 meters in the grass. Brown and Avery are confident that the break will not hinder them on the road to Tokyo. “Once we get paired together again, it’s like riding a bike,” Avery said. “We’re going to be perfect.”

Tennis: A Homemade Court
When Dana Mathewson moved from London to Central Florida in late February, she knew life would change. She could not have imagined the only tennis she would play for months would be inside her new home. Mathewson, the highest-ranked U.S. male or female wheelchair tennis player at No. 11 in the world, said earlier in June that she was essentially on lockdown for three months before the USTA National Campus in Orlando reopened last week.

She relocated to the area to take advantage of the facilities after two years in England, working toward a clinical doctorate degree in audiology at University College in London. Mathewson, while living with two other tennis players in Florida, decided to “make lockdown fun” and set up the makeshift court in an open room. “It was birthed out of boredom, to be honest,” she said. They used smaller rackets and softer balls from USTA’s Net Generation program for kids. “So we knew we wouldn’t ruin the walls or the windows,” she said.

They played regularly until Mathewson moved out in early April due to allergies and the fact her housemates had cats. Mathewson, who learned to crochet and fostered Riley, a three-month-old Cockapoo, during stay-at-home, may move on from the sport after the Tokyo Games. She’s putting all her effort into rising into the top eight in the world to earn entry into Grand Slams and make it financially viable to continue beyond 2021.

Cycling: Virtual Time Trials
Starting April 30, U.S. Paralympics Cycling began holding weekly Zwift competitions open to para-cyclists from around the world. In a time trial format, each cyclist received a staggered start time and competed on bike trainers at home to power their virtual avatars over a 10-mile circuit. It was open to handcycles, tricycles, tandems and standard bicycles. U.S. Paralympics already had national team rides twice a week on Zwift. With group riding outside eliminated due to the pandemic, U.S. Paralympics Cycling CEO Ian Lawless came up with the virtual time trial idea.

“The biggest thing, at least for the athletes that I work with, it’s more maintaining that motivation,” said Sarah Hammer, a four-time Olympic track cycling medalist who is now the U.S. Para-cycling head coach. “It’s just creating that motivation when, suddenly, your Paralympic Games have been pushed back by a year.”

MORE: Paralympic programming set for primetime next 3 weeks

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Alex Zanardi in medically induced coma after crashing handbike into truck

Alex Zanardi
AP
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ROME — Italian race car champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi was in a medically induced coma and remained in serious condition a day after crashing his handbike into a truck and smashing his face.

Zanardi — who lost both of his legs in a race-car crash nearly 20 years ago — was hooked up to a ventilator and had “stable” blood flow while his neurological status “remains serious,” the Santa Maria alle Scotte hospital in Siena said Saturday in a medical bulletin.

“The condition of Alex Zanardi is serious but stable,” Dr. Giuseppe Olivieri said in a briefing outside the hospital. “He arrived here with major facial cranial trauma, a smashed face, and a deeply fractured frontal bone (forehead).”

“The numbers are good, although it remains a very serious situation.”

Zanardi was transported by helicopter to the hospital after crashing near the Tuscan town of Pienza during a relay race Friday.

Local TV at the scene of the crash showed what was apparently Zanardi’s handbike lying on its side at the edge of the road and a large truck pulling a semitrailer parked ahead.

Late Friday, the hospital said Zanardi underwent “a delicate neurosurgery operation” due to “severe cranial trauma.”

The surgery lasted about three hours, after which Zanardi was moved to the intensive care unit.

“We won’t see what his neurological state is until he wakes up — if he wakes up. Serious condition means it’s a situation when someone could die. Improvement takes time in these cases. Turns for the worse can be sudden,” said Olivieri, who operated on Zanardi. “The operation went according to the plan. It’s the initial situation that was very serious.”

“The next step is to try and stabilize him over the next week or 10 days. Then if things go well, he could eventually be woken up and re-evaluated.”

Zanardi’s wife, Daniela, and his son, Niccolò, were at his bedside.

“As I told his wife, he’s a patient who is worth being treated,” Olivieri said, referring to his chances for improvement. “As far as a prognosis of how he’ll be tomorrow, in a week or in 15 days, I don’t know. But I’m convinced that he should be treated.”

The 53-year-old Zanardi won two championships in CART in the United States before a brief move to Formula One. He returned to America and was racing in Germany in a CART event in 2001 when both of his legs were severed in a horrific accident the weekend after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

During his recovery, Zanardi designed his own prosthetics and learned to walk again. He then turned his attention to hand cycling and developed into one of the most accomplished athletes in the world. He won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Prosecutors in Siena have opened a criminal investigation into the accident and the race’s organization — and specifically whether enough safety precautions were taken.

About 10 disabled riders were escorted by one police vehicle, local reports said.

Witnesses have said that the accident occurred on a downhill section just before a curve in the road. Zanardi apparently lost control and veered into the oncoming lane. The truck apparently tried to swerve out of the way but couldn’t avoid the crash.

The truck driver, who was placed under investigation, tested negative for alcohol and drugs.

“The truck didn’t make a mistake. Alex made the mistake,” said national team coach Mario Valentini, who was following the race.

The race was part of a two-week relay event throughout Italy to promote the country’s rebirth after the coronavirus pandemic. It was created by an association led by Zanardi with an aim of bringing more Italians to the Paralympics.