His bread-and-butter was the mile.
Two years earlier, Louis Zamperini, while at Torrance High School, set the interscholastic record for the mile, clocking in at 4:21.2 at the preliminary meet for the California state championship. Two years later, at USC in 1938, he set the national collegiate mark for that distance, notching a 4:08.3 despite — unfathomably — suffering severe cuts to his shins from competitors attempting to “spike” him during the race.
In 1936, however, his ticket to the Berlin Olympics lie in another event.
Earlier that year, Zamperini decided to try out for the Summer Games, realizing that with how stacked the competition was for the mile, his best bet to make it to Germany was in the 5,000 meters.
In those days, athletes had to pay their own way to the Olympic Trials. Luckily for the penniless Zamperini, his father worked for the railroad, assuring him a free train ticket. And he made sure to seize his opportunity.
In the unbearable heat of the 1936 North American heatwave (race co-favorite Norm Bright and several others collapsed and failed to finish), Zamperini — born, famously, in Olean on Jan. 26, 1917 before moving to California at age 2 — used a sprint finish to tie American record-holder Don Lash for first in the 5,000-meter final in Randall’s Island, New York.
Both men qualified for the Olympics, Zamperini at just 19 years and 178 days old. To this day, he’s the youngest American to qualify in the 5,000.
IN THE last several years, both before and after his death in July 2014, the Times Herald has written several stories about Zamperini, who — both willingly and not — led one of the most remarkable lives imaginable ...
About how he survived 47 days at sea after mechanical issues caused his plane, during World War II, to crash into the Pacific Ocean in May 1943. About how he was taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy, held in captivity and severely beaten and mistreated, almost daily, until the war ended in August 1945. About the awards he received for his heroism, including three Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Prisoner of War Medal.
None, though, have centered primarily on his performance at the Olympics, which, by itself, could have categorized him as an American sports hero.
This year, of course, no one will be able to run the 5,000 meters in Tokyo, where Zamperini was held, for a time, at the Omori POW Camp, after the 2020 Summer Games were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We can, however, highlight how this extraordinary Olean native fared in his event 84 years earlier.
NEITHER Zamperini nor Lash figured to have much of a chance in Berlin, not with world record-holder Lauri Lehtinen, of Finland, also running the 5,000.
But that didn’t stop the former from taking full advantage of the experience.
On the boat ride over, Zamperini, having never seen a spread like the one before him, gorged.
“I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich in his life,” he said in the book Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, “and all the food was free. I had not just one sweet roll, but about seven every morning, with bacon and eggs. My eyes were like saucers.”
By the time he arrived, Zamperini, as with most of his shipmates, had gained plenty of weight, putting on 12 pounds. And though it wasn’t advantageous to running, it was good for his health, as he’d lost 15 pounds while training in the summer heat in New York.
And it gave him the fuel he needed for perhaps his best run yet.
ZAMPERINI placed fifth of 13 runners in his heat (15:02.2), earning a spot in the 5,000-meter final on Friday, Aug. 7, 1936.
In the medal run, he took eighth of 15 competitors in 14:46.8, with Finland’s Gunnar Hockert (14:22.2) taking gold and Lehtinen (14:25.8) silver (his teammate, Lash, was 13th). But despite his middle-of-the-pack finish, Zamperini turned nearly as many heads as the medalists with the way he roared from behind, finishing his final lap in an amazing 56 seconds.
His effort drew an ovation from a packed stadium and the attention of Adolf Hitler, then in his third year as Fuhrer, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Zamperini later recounted — and as it’s told in the inspiring 2014 feature length film Unbroken — Hitler shook his hand and said, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”
Zamperini’s showing was the continuation of what he’d started in high school, where he won the California state meet and earned a scholarship to the University of Southern California. It was the prelude to his days at USC, where he was a two-time NCAA mile champion and earned the nickname “Torrance Tornado.”
And it was captured in a small story in the Saturday, Aug. 8 edition of the TH, one boxed off from the featured piece on U.S. track legend Jesse Owens, with whom Zamperini shared a room in Berlin.
“Louis Zamperini, former Olean boy, now residing in California, placed eighth in the record-breaking 5,000-meter run at the Olympic Games at Berlin Friday,” the snippet read. “Three Finnish runners finished in order ahead of the international field. Reports state that Zamperini, who moved with his family from Coleman Street some years ago, ran the race of his life in the event.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)