Loss of an Olympian & War Hero – Louis Zamperini Passes Away at 97

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The below article is from the minds at Runner’s World 

Louis Zamperini, a 1936 U.S. Olympian at 5000 meters and the subject of the best-selling book Unbroken, has died at age 97 of pneumonia.

Born on January 26, 1917, Zamperini was a top American miler in the vintage era of middle-distance racing before World War II. He then became one of America’s most famous wartime heroes after surviving extreme deprivation on a life raft and in captivity under the Japanese. By the end of his long life his story was renown, thanks to Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, published in 2010. A Hollywood movie based on the book, directed by Angelina Jolie, is scheduled to be released on December 25, 2014.

Zamperini’s older brother Peter, himself an excellent high school runner, and some persuasive girls, first induced him to run track at age 15. It proved an outlet for teenage energies that had previously led him into outbursts of violence and habitual stealing. Part of his problem may have been a sense of being an outsider, as he was born into an immigrant family that moved from New York to Torrance, California, when he was 2, and as a small child he spoke only Italian.

His rapid success as a runner earned him acceptance and esteem. In his last three years at high school he was undefeated, and at age 17 ran a mile in 4:21.3, unofficially a world high school record. When he graduated at the end of 1935, he postponed college, instead training intensively under his brother’s guidance for the 1936 Olympics. He was up against one of the greatest generations of American middle-distance running, with nine men in 1935 and 1936 faster than 4:15 for the mile when the world record was at 4:06.7. Two of them, Glenn Cunningham and Bill Bonthron, were world record breakers, and two new talents, Archie San Romani and Chuck Fenske, were 10 seconds faster than Zamperini.

Wisely, Zamperini opted to go for the 5000, and in the Olympic trials at Randall’s Island, New York, ran a totally unexpected second, in a virtual dead-heat with the favorite, Don Lash. At the Berlin Olympics, inexperienced and overfed, he ran near the back, becoming competitive only on the last lap, which he blazed in a spectacular 56 seconds, cutting through four places to finish eighth in(14:46.8. Chancellor Adolf Hitler asked to meet him, and commented approvingly, “You are the boy with the fast finish.”      

In Unbroken, Hillenbrand presents Zamperini’s next four years as a thwarted progress toward what should have been an Olympic gold medal in 1940 and a sub-4:00 mile, but it’s more accurate to say he was well up in the mix in a highly competitive generation. He ran an outstanding NCAA record mile of 4:08.3 in 1938, 1.6 seconds outside Cunningham’s world record, beating Fenske, but lost to Fenske a few days later. Then in a hard-fought AAU championship he was fourth behind Cunningham, Fenske, and San Romani. In three outdoor seasons, he never improved on that 4:08.3. In 1939 he ran several good miles (4:11.2, 4:11.9, 4:13.6) but in the AAU 1500m he only just edged into third, behind new talent Blaine Rideout, and Fenske. He ended 1940, his last season, with a best of 4:11.6, 12th in the world mile rankings and sixth fastest American. The Olympic Games had been canceled.   

Early in 1941, with war raging in Europe and imminent for America, Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps, opted out again, and then was drafted. Trained as a bombsight operator in B-24 Liberator bombers, with Japan controlling most of the Pacific, he was posted in 1942 to the Hawaiian islands. After surviving several risky missions, and a Japanese raid on the base, he was on a search-and-rescue flight in May 1943 when the plane malfunctioned and crashed into the Pacific, killing all but three of the crew.

The next phases of his story are well-known. Only two of the three survived a horrific 46-day journey on a drifting inflatable life raft, harried by sharks, strafed by a Japanese plane, and depleted by starvation and dehydration. Zamperini then had to endure even more horrific sufferings under vicious Japanese prison camp guards. He has published two versions of his memoir Devil at My Heels (1956 and 2003), he was subject of TV documentaries and a “This is your life” TV tribute, and the film rights to his story were bought by Universal Studios as long ago as the 1950s, with Tony Curtis eager to play the lead. It was the success of Hillenbrand’s book, on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 100 weeks, that finally convinced the studio to make the movie.

After the war, tormented by nightmares at night and anti-social conduct by day, he lapsed into alcoholism until saved by the evangelical preacher Billy Graham. He married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946, and they had a daughter and a son.

In his later years, Zamperini was always physically active and mentally alert. He was fit enough and famous enough to carry the Olympic torch for five different Games, the latest at age 80, before the Nagano Winter Games in Japan, when he ran with the torch past the site of the camp where he was imprisoned. Zamperini’s resilience under unspeakable suffering more than earned him every moment of this later heroic acclaim.

There is no question of Zamperini’s outstanding track running talent, however optimistic it is to see him as likely to have run sub-4:00. It seems fitting that a man whose running career was cut short by war, and who then lived through such torment, who was even formally declared to be dead, should finally have passed away quietly, in calm of mind and full of years and honor, as America’s oldest surviving Olympic runner.

 

Article via Runner’s World

 

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