After nearly 90 years, Louie Zamperini has not let life run past him.
It has been 70 years since Zamperini finished eighth in the 5,000-meter run at the historic 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Less than a decade later, Zamperini survived World War II after his plane crashed in the Pacific and he was stranded at sea, only to be rescued by a Japanese patrol boat and become a prisoner of war.
But in the decades since experiencing those extreme high and low periods of his life, Zamperini, 89, still seems to live life as if he were in his 20s.
Now he will return to his running roots when he serves as the spokesperson and honorary starter for this year’s Keep LA Running event Sunday, July 16th, at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey.
It may be difficult to believe that Zamperini — a Torrance native who has lived in the Hollywood Hills since 1957 — is considered the oldest American track and field Olympian living in Los Angeles because he still takes part in a host of activities that many teenagers today enjoy, such as jet skiing, snow skiing, tennis and golf.
Zamperini even flies planes and just eight years ago gave up skateboarding.
The secret, he says, is keeping up with “fitness.”
“If you want to live long, don’t be a spectator, be a participant,” he advises.
Zamperini, who said he has received a license for 112 different activities, certainly appears to be the participant type.
“You name it, I’ve been it,” he said. “I’ve gotten to taste everything in life, so it’s great to think back.”
In addition to all of his hobbies, Zamperini is passionate about giving back to the community and working with youths.
The 13th annual Keep LA Running event includes a 5K walk or run, 10K run, or a ten-or-20-mile coastal bicycle cruise.
The nonprofit fundraising event benefits several charities, including the Pediatric Oncology Service at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital of (Los Angeles County) LAC + USC Medical Center, and the American Cancer Society.
“It’s always an honor to help out in something like this with athletes and young people,” Zamperini said.
As the event’s honorary starter, Zamperini will join other track and field legends from past years, including Carl Lewis, Tommie Smith and Billy Mills, who each won Olympic gold medals.
Zamperini’s inspiring story about making the 1936 Olympic team as a 19-year-old and later becoming a World War II hero were reason enough for him to be selected as this year’s event starter, Keep LA Running spokesman Don Franken said.
“He’s the perfect speaker for this event because he’s someone who overcame so much adversity, and that’s what this event is about,” Franken said. “To me, Louie is the ideal spokesperson because he’s the ultimate role model who’s been through so much.
“He’s a survivor and he’s inspirational.”
Zamperini continues to give back to his sport and he remains a model of achievement for young athletes, Franken said.
“That’s what we want to do — inspire a new generation of runners,” Franken said of the event.
Zamperini said he first got his running urge as a troublesome 15-year-old who was looking for some discipline. Running offered him a sense of accomplishment, but more importantly it brought him attention, he said.
“With running, the thing that got me going was recognition,” he said.
The Torrance High School alumnus recalled that the first time he got recognized was during a high school track meet, in which he didn’t win but was cheered on as he passed another runner to finish third.
To this day, that race remains one of his most memorable, he says.
“I never did anything before, but now I’m passing a guy and I got recognition for it,” he recalled. “I had no idea anyone knew my name, so that was exciting.”
But soon after, Zamperini would begin to be recognized for being a champion. He rose to become the top high school miler in the country, setting a national record of 4:21 that stood for 20 years.
His talents eventually led him to the Olympics, but it was the 1932 state high school cross-country championships in which he won by a quarter of a mile over his next competitor that he calls “the greatest race of my life.”
“I don’t remember my feet touching the ground,” he said of the race.
As a recent high school graduate in 1936, Zamperini made the U.S. Olympic team in the 5,000 meters, joining a track and field squad that included the legendary Jesse Owens, whom Zamperini called a “prince of a guy.”
Owens achieved Olympic stardom in Berlin by capturing four gold medals as Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.
For Zamperini, the Olympic experience was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
“I was under a constant euphoria,” he said.
When it was his time to shine on the Olympic track, Zamperini ran the last lap of the 5,000 meters in a swift 56 seconds — a feat which gave him a moment to shake hands with Hitler.
After the Olympics, Zamperini continued to succeed as a runner at USC, where he was a member of three collegiate track championship teams and a two-time collegiate mile champion. His national collegiate mile record of 4:08 stood for 15 years.
While achieving some of the greatest highlights of his life during his running career, Zamperini also experienced some of the lowest periods of his life during his service in World War II.
Zamperini was serving as a bombardier with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the war in the Pacific when his plane malfunctioned and crashed on a search and rescue mission south of Hawaii in May 1943.
Eight of his crewmates were killed, but Zamperini and another survivor spent 47 days on a raft and drifted nearly 2,000 miles in the ocean.
To add to the horrifying experience, the two men were forced to deal with swarms of sharks that surrounded their raft.
When they were finally discovered on the 47th day at sea, the agony continued, as they were picked up by a Japanese Navy boat and imprisoned.
Zamperini was later sent to a Japanese slave labor camp, where he said he was tortured and his weight fell to just 80 pounds.
It was the “worst 43 days of my life,” he recalls, far worse than the time he spent drifting on the raft at sea.
But while facing such tormenting experiences, Zamperini said he managed to make it through by keeping his mind “exercised” and having hope.
“Hope is the power of the soul to endure,” he said. “The best way to survive is to be prepared for the unknown.”
Zamperini received a hero’s welcome when he returned home from the war in September 1945.
More than half a century after the end of the war, he was invited back to Japan to carry the torch for the U.S. team at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
The toll of his World War II experience forced him to give up competitive running, but Zamperini worked various jobs over the years in war surplus and commercial real estate fields, among others.
He has even written an autobiography with David Resin in 2003 titled Devil at My Heels, which chronicles his inspiring life events.
Nowadays, Zamperini devotes a bulk of his time to being a youth counselor at the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood.
Working with youths has helped keep him the healthy, active man he is today, he said.
For such an accomplished man, having an influence on the young seems to be just another grand achievement.
“My whole life is working with young people,” he said. “All of my friends now are college kids.
“At almost 90, being able to relate to young people — how can you beat that?”