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. Tatsuki Machida leads Skate America over Jeremy Abbott, Jason Brown

    Oct 24, 2014, 10:59 PM EDT

    Tatsuki Machida Getty Images

    Machida can become first repeat Skate America men’s winner since 2001.

  2. Alpine skiing men’s World Cup preview

    Oct 24, 2014, 10:31 AM EDT

    Bode Miller, Ted Ligety Getty Images

    Austrian eyes history, while Ted Ligety, Bode Miller look to fill resume holes.

  3. Elana Meyers Taylor to drive 4-man bobsled with husband as push athlete

    Oct 24, 2014, 8:42 AM EDT

    Elana Meyers Taylor AP

    New rule allows women to compete in four-man bobsled this year.

  4. Shani Davis ‘not completely healed’ from Sochi, still eyes record

    Oct 23, 2014, 8:11 PM EDT

    Shani Davis Getty Images

    Sochi disappointment gave Davis a deeper appreciation for past success going into post-Olympic season.

  5. Allyson Felix’s patience pays off in 2014, ready to explore again in 2015

    Oct 23, 2014, 3:14 PM EDT

    Allyson Felix Getty Images

    Felix came back from torn hamstring to post the fastest 200m time since the London Olympics.

  6. Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski preview Skate America

    Oct 23, 2014, 12:58 PM EDT

    Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski Getty Images

    Several U.S. Olympians dot the field in Grand Prix series opener.

  7. Oscar Pistorius’ agent seeks prison meeting to discuss running future

    Oct 23, 2014, 11:59 AM EDT

    Oscar Pistorius Getty Images

    Pistorius is banned from competing during his sentence, even if not in jail, by Paralympic and South African Olympic Committees.

  8. Alpine skiing women’s World Cup preview

    Oct 23, 2014, 9:52 AM EDT

    Mikaela Shiffrin Getty Images

    Expect to see more of Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn than last year, but neither appears a threat to the world’s best overall skier.

  9. Serbia protests Kosovo receiving IOC provisional recognition

    Oct 23, 2014, 9:49 AM EDT

    Serbia flag Getty Images

    Kosovo, which gained independence from Serbia in 2008, could field an Olympic delegation for the first time in 2016.

  10. More Rulon Gardner items to be auctioned

    Oct 23, 2014, 9:31 AM EDT

    Rulon Gardner AP

    Gardner’s Olympic medals were sold last year.

  11. Joss Christensen skis remains of Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics sites (video)

    Oct 22, 2014, 5:06 PM EDT

    Joss Christensen

    Olympic ski slopestyle champion also needed rabies shots after dog bite.

  12. IOC provisionally recognizes Kosovo

    Oct 22, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT

    Witters Sport via US PRESSWIRE Witters Sport via US PRESSWIRE

    Kosovo has never competed at the Olympics as an independent nation.

  13. 2015 Tour de France route unveiled; favorites weigh in

    Oct 22, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT

    Tour de France

    Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador have mixed opinions.

  14. Russian Olympic bobsled champ Aleksander Zubkov retires

    Oct 22, 2014, 9:44 AM EDT

    Alexander Zubkov Getty Images

    Zubkov, 40, had already said he wouldn’t compete this season.

  15. Jeneba Tarmoh mulls representing Sierra Leone at Rio 2016 Olympics

    Oct 22, 2014, 9:16 AM EDT

    Jeneba Tarmoh Getty Images

    Tarmoh was part of the infamous tie at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.

  16. IOC to discuss recognizing Kosovo this week

    Oct 22, 2014, 8:54 AM EDT

    Witters Sport via US PRESSWIRE Witters Sport via US PRESSWIRE

    Kosovo has yet to field a delegation at the Olympics.

  17. Watch trailers for ‘Touch the Wall’ about Missy Franklin

    Oct 21, 2014, 12:28 PM EDT

    Missy Franklin

    Film documenting Missy Franklin’s lead-up to London debuts next month.

  18. Miracle on Ice fantasy camp set for Lake Placid

    Oct 21, 2014, 11:10 AM EDT

    Miracle on Ice camp

    Eight members of 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team will conduct spring event.