Pope hails Zanardi’s ‘lesson of humanity’ through disability

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              In this photo taken on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, Italy's Alessandro "Alex" Zanardi, smiles after winning the silver medal in the men's road race H5, during the 2016 Paralympics Games, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Race car driver turned Paralympic champion Alex Zanardi has been seriously injured again. Police tell The Associated Press that Zanardi was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Siena following a road accident near the Tuscan town of Pienza during a national race for Paralympic athletes on handbikes. The 53-year-old Zanardi had both of his legs amputated following a horrific crash during a 2001 CART race in Germany. He was a two-time CART champion. (AP Photo/Mauro Pimentel)
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ROME (AP) — Pope Francis has praised Alex Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity as the Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist recovers from a handbike crash.

Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. It was published on the front page of sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport on Wednesday.

“Dearest Alessandro, your story is an example of how to start again after an unforeseen stop. Through sport, you have taught us to live life as a protagonist, teaching a lesson of humanity through disability. Thank you for having given strength to those who have lost it. In this painful moment, I am close to you and I pray for you and your family,” the letter read.

It was signed “Fraternally, Francis.”

Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since he crashed his handbike into a truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on Friday during a relay event.

He is stable, but suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage. The Siena hospital where he is being treated has said he will remain in a medically induced coma until at least next week.

Zanardi’s son, Niccolo, has been posting messages on his Instagram feed urging him on. The latest on Wednesday featured a photo of Niccolo holding his father’s hand and vowing never to let go.

“Come on Dad,” he wrote, “another tiny step even today.”

The Vatican, in confirming the letter, recalled that Zanardi had recently contributed to Francis’ benefit auction to support two Lombardy hospitals that were overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak. Vatican News said Zanardi had donated one of the uniforms he wore when he won a gold medal in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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.