Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Usain Bolt not happy with Tyson Gay’s reduced ban

    Jul 22, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT

    Olympics Day 15 - Athletics Getty Images

    “It is sending a bad message,” Bolt said.

  2. Gabby Douglas helps girl’s dream come true with Make-A-Wish

    Jul 22, 2014, 4:58 PM EDT

    Gabby Douglas

    Amarissa, 13, is a former gymnast who suffers from lupus.

  3. David Boudia ponders a third diving event leading to 2016

    Jul 22, 2014, 12:24 PM EDT

    David Boudia Getty Images

    Olympic champion finished his season in Shanghai last week.

  4. Guide to the Commonwealth Games

    Jul 22, 2014, 10:35 AM EDT

    Usain Bolt Getty Images

    Top sprinters from Jamaica, swimmers from Australia and more gather in Glasgow.

  5. First Olympic golf qualification rankings released

    Jul 21, 2014, 6:09 PM EDT

    Rory McIlroy AP

    U.S. stars would not make the Olympic field if it was determined today.

  6. Big 12 commissioner says men’s Olympic sports could be cut

    Jul 21, 2014, 3:13 PM EDT

    Bob Bowlsby AP

    NCAA’s current lawsuits may cut funding.

  7. Dutch cyclist cheats death twice, avoids both Malaysian Airlines flights

    Jul 21, 2014, 2:11 PM EDT

    Maarten de Jonge `

    “It’s inconceivable,” Maarten de Jonge said.

  8. 90-plus-year-old men set 3 world relay records at USATF Masters

    Jul 21, 2014, 10:43 AM EDT

    Champion Goldy

    Extraordinary men include war veterans, longtime NASA worker, Methodist minister.

  9. Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics chief quits

    Jul 21, 2014, 8:33 AM EDT

    Kim Jin-sun AP

    Kim Jin-sun had been the committee’s president since October 2011.

  10. Mariel Zagunis wins silver at World Fencing Championships (video)

    Jul 18, 2014, 3:09 PM EDT

    Mariel Zagunis Getty Images

    U.S. Olympic flag bearer returned to the podium after missing medals at 2012 Olympics, 2013 Worlds.

  11. Henry Ellard, former NFL All-Pro receiver, competes at USATF Masters

    Jul 18, 2014, 10:10 AM EDT

    Henry Ellard Getty Images

    Ellard triple jumped at 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials.

  12. Jesse Owens biopic cast headliners revealed

    Jul 17, 2014, 3:42 PM EDT

    Jesse Owens AP

    Multiple Owens biopics in the works.

  13. Lifetime doping bans not legal, WADA president says

    Jul 17, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT

    Craig Reedie Reuters

    But a four-year ban would stand up in court.

  14. Olympians, Paralympians at the ESPYs (photos)

    Jul 17, 2014, 1:49 PM EDT

    Jamie Anderson

    Sochi stars and a 12-time Olympic medalist were at Nokia Theater.

  15. Monaco Diamond League on world record watch; preview

    Jul 17, 2014, 11:57 AM EDT

    Absel Kiprop Getty Images

    Asbel Kiprop goes after 16-year-old mark in 1500m.

  16. South Korea men’s hockey team might not qualify for 2018

    Jul 17, 2014, 10:53 AM EDT

    South Korea hockey Getty Images

    Host countries aren’t assured spots in the Olympics anymore, and South Korea is ranked very low.

  17. Paralympic champion Josh Sweeney receives Tillman Award at ESPYs

    Jul 17, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT

    Josh Sweeney AP

    Sweeney, a Purple Heart recipient, scored the gold-winning goal in Sochi.