He was an Olympic athlete in Berlin where he met Hitler, a Prisoner of War of the Japanese during World War II, and is still sharing his Christian faith.
(Hollywood Hills, CA)—I have interviewed some extraordinary people in my more than 41 years as a journalist, but on Monday (December 27, 2010) I was able to meet with one of the most inspiring men I have ever met.
His name is Louis Zamperini, a true living legend who, at the age of 93, is still serving the Lord.
My wife Norma joined me as we drove up through a winding road in the star-studded Hollywood Hills to the home of Zamperini, where I was able to interview this incredible man who is the subject of a new book called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which is already near the top of the New York Times best-seller list for hardback nonfiction, and was written by Laura Hillenbrand, the acclaimed author of Seabiscuit.
The book chronicles the extraordinary early life of this former Olympic athlete, POW, and committed Christian.
When we arrived at his picturesque home, Louis was sitting at a desk with a marvelous view of downtown Los Angeles, wearing a red University of Southern California (USC) cap, and was busy signing scores of books for his many fans from around the world.
As I began my interview for my “Front Page Radio” program on KWVE 107.9 FM in Southern California, I learned that Zamperini, who will turn 94 in January, remains active and full of life, lecturing to audiences around the world about how to deal with stress, the meaning of the Olympic movement and the freedom he has found through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
During the interview he told me that he was born in Olean, New York to Anthony and Louise Zamperini. The Zamperini family, he said, moved to Torrance, California in the 1920s, where Louis attended Torrance High School.
The son of Italian immigrants, Louis spoke no English when his family moved to California, which made him a target for bullies. His father taught Louis how to box for self-defense. Pretty soon, according to Louis, he was “beating the tar out of every one of them. But I was so good at it that I started relishing the idea of getting even. I was sort of addicted to it.”
Before long, he went on, he was picking fights “just to see if anyone could keep up with me.” From juvenile thug, he progressed to “teenage hobo.” Hopping a train to Mexico, he courted danger for the thrill of it.
Louis said that he had a “knack for getting into trouble,” so his brother got him involved in the school track team. In 1934 Louis set a world interscholastic record in the mile, clocking in at 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds. The record would last for over twenty years, until broken by Dennis Hansen in 1959. That record helped Louis win a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.
In the Olympic trials at Randall’s Island, New York, Louis finished in a dead heat against world-record holder Don Lash, and qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Unfortunately, Louis ruined his chance at gaining the gold by gorging himself on the free food that was provided to the Olympic athletes during the trans-Atlantic cruise. He shared a cabin with the great Jesse Owens who achieved international fame by winning four gold medals: one each in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4×100 meter relay team.
“I was a Depression-era kid who had never even been to a drugstore for a sandwich,” he said. “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 end of the trip, Louis confessed that he had gained 12 pounds.
As a consequence, Louis only finished eighth in the 5000 meter distance event at that Berlin Olympics, but his final lap was fast enough to catch the attention of Adolf Hitler, who insisted on a personal meeting. As Louis tells the story, Hitler shook his hand, and said simply ‘The boy with the fast finish.'”
I then asked Louis if he had been a Christian at that time, would he have witnessed to Hitler. He smiled and replied, “I would share about Jesus Christ with anyone.”
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