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Louis Zamperini, Olympic track star and war hero, dies at age 97

Jul 3, 2014, 11:23 AM EDT

Louis Zamperini AP

Louis Zamperini, a 1936 United States Olympian and WWII prisoner of war, passed away Wednesday at age 97.

Zamperini was the subject of the bestselling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by “Seabiscut” author Laura Hillenbrand.

A film adaptation, directed by Angelina Jolie and adapted by the Coen brothers, is set to be released on Christmas Day 2014.

In a statement released by Universal Pictures, Zamperini’s family said:

Having overcome insurmountable odds at every turn in his life, Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini has never broken down from a challenge. He recently faced the greatest challenge of his life with a life-threatening case of pneumonia.

After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives. His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days.

A world-class distance runner by the age of 19, Zamperini was the youngest member of the U.S. track team at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. He finished eighth, the best American finish, in the 5000-meter race.

Despite not earning a medal, his performance was so impressive that Adolf Hitler requested a one-on-one meeting.

The 1940 Tokyo Olympics were cancelled due to World War II, and in 1941 Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

After his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, Zamperini and two crewmates spent 47 days on an inflatable raft before being captured by Japanese soldiers. He was held for two and a half years, suffered frequent beatings and torture, and was believed killed in action until his release at the end of WWII in 1945.

Zamperini stayed involved in the Olympic movement for the rest of his life. At age 81 he ran a leg in the Olympic torch relay for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, in 2005 he visited the Berlin Olympic stadium for the first time since competing there nearly 70 years earlier.

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