Heroes of Running: Louie Zamperini
Running helped Zamperini foster the resilience he needed to endure captivity during WWII.
By Laura Hillenbrand, Runner's World
It was the spring of 1944, the height of World War II. In a Japanese torture camp, a captured American stood, ravaged by illness and shockingly emaciated, surrounded by guards clutching clubs and baseball bats.
His name was Louie Zamperini, and he'd once been a luminous track prodigy. Lifted from juvenile delinquency by running, he set a U.S. high school Mile record that stood for 19 years, and an NCAA Mile record that lasted for 20. As a teenager in 1936, he placed eighth in the Olympic 5000 in only his sixth race at the distance. By 1940, he was an Olympic 1500 meter favorite, the man many predicted would be the first to break the 4 minute Mile.
But war had canceled the Olympics, and Zamperini had become an airman. When his plane crashed in the Pacific on May 27, 1943, he began an astounding 2,000 mile raft journey, enduring leaping sharks, a typhoon and enemy strafing, only to be captured by the Japanese. They'd beaten him, starved him, conducted medical experiments on him, and would soon enslave him. Now, learning that he'd been an Olympian, they were going to force him to race.
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