Former runner’s life anything but ordinary

At first glance, you can tell there’s something special — something different — about Louis Zamperini.

He wears a cardinal USC hat and is 92 years old, but he’ll forgive you for thinking he’s 60. Most men his age are confined to their homes, but you can tell that Zamperini doesn’t live that life. In fact, he probably does more physical activity than the average 30-year-old. He’d challenge you to a skateboard race, but he quit about 10 years ago when he did exactly that and broke his collarbone.

Up until two years ago, Zamperini would also race you down the mountain skiing double black diamonds. As a 92-year-old, he performed moves I don’t dare try on a bunny slope.

He still trims trees and bushes with his chain saw and trash talks during the nine holes of golf he regularly plays with men 30 years his junior.

But these characteristics are a by-product of his story — the story that he leaves home to tell four or five times per month, as he did on Wednesday to USC students at the Catholic Center. These characteristics only partially explain why Zamperini is the greatest and most inspirational Trojan alive.

“You just have to be around him for five minutes to know what kind of influence he has on others. He can motivate and inspire,” said USC track and field director Ron Allice, who established the annual Zamperini Award for the most inspirational person on the team.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Zamperini should be dead. In fact, for just about a year, he was. His parents got a death certificate signed by former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than a year after his plane crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean while he was on a search-and-rescue mission in 1943.

As his plane was sinking, Zamperini tried to wriggle free, but was entangled by wires. He finally gave up hope and lost consciousness.

That is, until he found himself alive, awake and floating inside the plane. He used his USC class ring, which latched onto a hook on the plane, to pull himself out the window of his old life and up to the surface of his new one. Upon reaching the surface, he snagged the tail of a life raft that was about to drift off.

Zamperini, who converted to Christianity a few years after World War II ended, has only one explanation for how he managed to escape the grip of the wires while unconscious.

“There was no way I could have gotten loose by another human. A miracle took place. God saved me,” he said.

You’ll understand, then, why he hates how the word “miracle” is thrown around too loosely and too often today — he doesn’t even use it to describe the other two plane crashes he survived.

So his prize for escaping death? Living on a life raft with two other survivors in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — for 47 days. He fed on raw fish and albatross; when you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything.

“It was like a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream,” Zamperini said.

The story doesn’t end there. On the 48th day, he was picked up by Japanese sailors and put in a prisoner-of-war camp for two and a half years.

During those years, he endured taunts, torture, betrayal, dehydration, attacks by insects and experimental injections. Once, a guard known as “the Bird” struck him on the temple with a brass belt buckle. After asking Zamperini to take the toilet paper off his head that he was using to stop the bleeding, the guard hit him again.

But Zamperini survived using the mental strength he obtained when he was a kid running the mile. He held the high school world record for 20 years and the national collegiate record for 15. He raced in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and shook the hand of Hitler himself.

Zamperini was freed after the war ended. After becoming a Christian in the ’50s, he has since forgiven every Japanese guard who wronged him, including the Bird.

It would be impossible to guess that Zamperini went through all this torture because he is so upbeat and positive these days. He has to be — it’s who he is. His heart is twice the size he is.

“If you’re in any kind of conversation with him, everything is positive. He is a very inspirational person just in his day-to-day actions and life philosophy. He’s not ordinary,” Allice said.

It’s hard to be ordinary when you hold the record for most Olympic torches carried (five) and you have a Nazi flag in your closet drawer that you stole from a bar at the Olympics when you had a little too much to drink. But not many 92-year-olds have done, or can do, the things on Zamperini’s résumé.

The next time you walk through the gates of Cromwell Field, take a look to your right. You’ll see a fountain with the name of the plaza above it. It’s the name of the most inspirational Trojan alive.

And you’ll know why the crowd at the Catholic Center gave him a standing ovation.

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2 replies
  1. Lisa Wittich
    Lisa Wittich says:

    Being a relative newcomer to California and living among throngs of USC Alum, I enjoyed your article on Louis Zamperini. It was refreshing to read about such spirit and accomplishment. Also… my new Trojan friends will think me quite knowledgeable when I make mention of him at parties.

  2. Alan Kita
    Alan Kita says:

    Not to dis Zamperini, but I’ve heard him say his Torrance High School class ring saved his life. He must have been wearing both rings. The airport in Torrance is named Zamperini Field and the high school football and track stadium is also named after him.

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