Louis Zamperini: Running Toward Redemption

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Did Louis Zamperini have a running career? Did he ever reach his athletic goals?

Louis Zamperini’s running career officially ended in 1947 with an ankle injury. But before the war, Louis was a star college athlete with incredible determination who’d made it to the 1936 Olympics. Read more about Louis Zamperini’s running career below.

Louis Zamperini’s Running Career Begins

Lous Zamperini’s brother Pete joined the track team of a junior-college in Compton, but he didn’t release his self-imposed duty as Louis’s personal trainer. He came home on a regular basis and taught Louis about form and the psychology of running.

Pete also recognized a special physical component of Louis’s body. Louis’s hips were configured in a way that allowed them to roll as he ran, which meant his next step was already forming as the first step was landing. This trait gave him a massive stride, about seven feet long. This advantage was of most benefit in longer races. Pete wanted Louis to become a miler, believing that Louis Zamperini’s running career could be legendary.

During his sophomore year in 1933, it was finally time to put all his hard work over the summer and fall to the test when track season started in early winter. In his first competition, Louis broke Pete’s school record for the 880-yard race by two seconds. A week later, he broke another of Pete’s records, this time clocking a mile time three seconds faster than his brother’s at 5:03. Over the season, he would whittle down his mile time to 4:42, setting a new state record. 

Louis grew bored with racing against high school students. He decided to compete against Pete and thirteen runners from various colleges in a two-mile race, a distance he’d never competed in or trained for. Louis won the race easily, finishing 50 yards ahead of the pack. He also entered a two-mile cross country race at UCLA against a pack of collegiate runners from Southern California. He finished a quarter-mile ahead of the other racers and set a new course record at sixteen. With these finishes, Louis started to believe he was something special. 

Louis Zamperini’s Running Takes the World by Storm

Louis Zamperini’s running stature as a legend was cemented his junior year at the Southern California Track and Field Championship. He set a national high school mile record that day at 4:21.3, two seconds faster than the previous record held since WWI. One report said it was unlikely his record would be broken within the next twenty years. The reporter was only off by one year. 

Louis’s success made the community of Torrance change their feelings about him. Where once he was the town terror, now he was a local hero. His life became an embarrassment of riches. People lined up for autographs, and he received so many wristwatches as prizes, he started giving them away to neighbors. Girls swarmed him, and the press took photos of him and his trophies in front of his house.

Watching Louis train became a spectator sport at the track, and people started referring to him as “Iron Man” and the “Torrance Tornado.” Newspapers from all over Southern California were pumping out stories about this budding superstar, including the LA Times and Examiner

For the boy whose only thought used to be what to steal next, Louis’s life now encompassed bigger dreams. He started to believe his legs could take him all the way to the world’s stage. He set his sights on the Berlin Olympics in 1936. 

Louis’s Olympic dream required an adjustment in his training. There was no mile race, only the 1500, 100 meters shorter. Many of the Olympic runners would be older, around their mid-20s, including Louis’s hero, Glenn Cunningham, who would be twenty-seven by the 1936 games. In comparison, Louis would only be nineteen. 

None of these factors deterred Louis, who’d already become the best high school miler ever in America. Over the two years that Louis had been competing, he’d shaved 42 seconds off his mile time. Louis was determined to make it to Berlin, and once he completed his undefeated senior season, the experts started to think he might just do it.

After graduating from high school in 1935, scholarship offers from a multitude of top schools came flooding in. Pete had transitioned to USC on a scholarship and was making his mark as one of the best milers in the country, as well. He urged Louis to accept their offer but defer until after the Olympic trials seven months away. Louis agreed and went to live with Pete so they could continue their training partnership.

Louis Zamperini’s running career was marked by his grit. He was a ferocious trainer, working with Pete every day to get in shape for the 1500. But his dream ended in the spring when he realized he wasn’t improving fast enough. Louis was too young, and there was no way to make his body mature to the level of his competition. He was crushed.

Running in the Olympics

The Manhattan docked in Germany on July 24, and the athletes walked off into a country on the dawn of one of the worst tragedies in history. Of course, at the time, no one could have known what was waiting on the other side of the Olympics.

Despite his confidence, Louis knew he was no real match for the strong competition in his event. The 5,000-meter race had been dominated by the Finns in the last four Olympics. Louis was young, unseasoned, out of practice, and overweight. He barely made fifth in his heat, just barely squeaking through to the final. He would need to improve his condition during the three days until the main event. 

On the day of the race, Louis gathered at the starting line filled with fear. There were one hundred thousand people in attendance. His nervous energy almost caused him to start out too strong, but he pulled back, like he had at the trials, and paced himself with the middle of the pack. Lash and the Finns separated themselves as the early leaders.

Louis’s race did not go as planned. He became nauseous during the race because of a strong stench coming from one of the racer’s hair in front of him. To get away from it, he slowed and slipped back, but he couldn’t find his juice, not even when he felt it was time to start moving up. He slid into twelfth place.

As the race neared the end, Louis remembered something Pete had told him: “A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain.” Louis started to accelerate, digging deep into the track and himself. He took over many of the runners ahead of him and pushed himself over the line. He finished seventh but had run the race of his life.

Despite missing the podium, Louis’s race was considered an astonishment by everyone in attendance. He’d devoured 50 lost yards in the final 400 meters and shaved eight seconds off his previous personal best. He’d run the fastest 5,000 of any American that year and was 12 seconds faster than the best time set by Lash the year before. 

Another astonishing aspect of Louis’s race was that his final lap was the fastest final lap in a distance race in the history of the Olympics. It was rare for someone to run a final lap in any distance race in less than a minute. Even in the mile, the three fastest recorded final laps were 61.2, 59.1, and 58.9 seconds. Louis’s final lap was 56 seconds. Louis Zamperini’s running career had truly made a mark.

Once Louis was cleaned up and in the stands, one of Hitler’s ministers informed Louis that Hitler wanted to meet him. From his seat, perched high above the stands, Hitler reached down to shake Louis’s hand and said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”

Louis Zamperini’s running career was cut short twice in his life. Once in 1940, when they were cancelled due to the war, and again in 1947, when an injury stopped him from training. Louis Zamperini’s running career gave him motivation and drive, purpose he later found in his faith.

Louis Zamperini: Running Toward Redemption

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Unbroken summary:

  • How Louie Zamperini was on track to become an Olympic athlete until the war started
  • The unbelievable story of his capture as a prisoner of war
  • The ultimate fate of Louie and his captors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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