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Alex Zanardi to defend Paralympic title on 15-year anniversary of crash

Alex Zanardi

LONGFIELD, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Alessandro Zanardi of Italy poses with his Gold medal after winning the Men’s Individual H 4 Road Race on day 9 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Brands Hatch on September 7, 2012 in Longfield, England. (Photo by Harry Engels/Getty Images)

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The day was Sept. 15, 2001. That’s when Alex Zanardi suffered one of the most horrific crashes in the history of auto racing.

The Italian lost control of his open-wheel car at the American Memorial (a German race renamed after Sept. 11) coming out of a pit stop, it slid into the track among 200mph traffic and was t-boned by another car.

“One piece of the car went on one side,” Zanardi told NBC as he prepared to complete the Ironman triathlon in 2014, “and the other one with another bit of Alex went into a different direction.”

Zanardi lost both of his legs. A priest came and read his last rites. Somehow, he survived, saying he went 50 minutes with less than one liter of blood, his heart stopped beating seven times.

Zanardi has said he took his life situation as a new challenge. He turned to the Paralympic sport of hand cycling and became quite good, sweeping his division’s time trial and road race at the 2012 London Games.

Zanardi, now 49, is entered in both races again in Rio, plus a mixed team relay. The three events fall on Sept. 14, 15 and 16 -- the day before, day of and day after the 15-year anniversary of his 2001 crash.

Of anniversaries, Zanardi said this leading up to the 10-year mark in 2011:

“The first thought that will go through my mind in the morning when I open my eyes will be very much related to my current dreams, rather than to my past nightmares.”

MORE: Rio Paralympic broadcast schedule