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The Spirit Lives On in This Torchbearer

Olympics: War hero Zamperini, nearly 85, has beaten the odds long enough to carry the flame for four different Games.

January 16, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He huffed and he puffed as he jogged up Western Avenue, but Lou Zamperini had a mission and he wasn't about to fail.

The glass-topped Olympic torch had been entrusted to him for two-tenths of a mile Tuesday afternoon, making him a link in the human chain that will relay the flame to Salt Lake City for the Winter Games Feb. 8. For him, it was a sacred trust.

Looking straight ahead as he chugged toward the intersection of Western and Adams, hoping the pants he had rolled over at the waistband wouldn't droop, Zamperini lifted the torch skyward, holding his right arm high for all the world to see.

Zamperini, 85 in 10 days, never won an Olympic gold medal. A standout miler at Torrance High and USC, he switched to the 5,000 and was eighth in that event at the 1936 Berlin Games.

His is a triumph of the spirit, of an ordinary guy who endured unfathomable pain but chooses to see and share the joy of being alive. A man who still rides a mountain bike, climbs the hills behind his Hollywood home and runs, a man who jokes that he made a concession to age by giving up skateboarding on his 81st birthday.

A man who should not have been alive to carry this Olympic torch or any other.

"I'm not worried about him," said his daughter, Cynthia, as his turn approached. "He's got the Olympic spirit. If he needs to do it, he'll do it."

Crossing the street and waving to the small crowd that had gathered along the route, Zamperini handed the torch to speedskater Maria Garcia, who continued the relay along Adams and past the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. Zamperini's family--Cynthia, son Luke, daughter-in-law Lisa and grandson Clay--gathered around him to pose for pictures. His wife of 55 years, also named Cynthia, died nearly a year ago.

"I felt good until I got halfway up the hill," Zamperini said, chest still heaving. "The hill did it.

"But I made it. I think I'm getting greedy. I've got my fourth torch."

It will take much more than a measly hill on Western Avenue to stop Lou Zamperini.

Being the bombardier in a plane that crashed over the Pacific during World War II couldn't extinguish his spirit. Drifting on a life raft for 47 days with two crewmates, little water and no food but the few fish they snared, couldn't snuff out the flame that burns within him.

Being imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and the daily beatings couldn't diminish his faith in mankind and God.

Zamperini, who still has the death certificate his parents received after his plane went down and he was presumed dead, ran Tuesday as he had practiced in the Hollywood hills, steady and true. He dedicated his relay leg to an old friend, James Armstrong, a former mayor of Torrance who died earlier this month.

"This is history being made," Justine Agnew, who lives around the corner from the place Zamperini received the torch at Western and 27th, said as she pointed her new disposable camera at Zamperini.

History is a living thing for Zamperini, for whom Zamperini Air Field in Torrance is named. He has forgiven his enemies and his captors and has learned hope is a far more powerful emotion than hatred or fear.

"I figure the war took 10 years off my life," he said. "I decided to get those 10 years back. I did it by good attitude and good diet.... I see people gripe and complain and I say, 'Hey, you're shortening your life.'"

Zamperini has lived life to the fullest.

He ran to escape the cops as a high-spirited kid in Torrance, but turned his gift into a hobby. A 4:21 miler as a junior at Torrance High, he won a scholarship to USC and was invited to join the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. On the ocean voyage to Hamburg, he made an astounding discovery for a kid raised during the Depression.

"I had no idea what you did aboard a ship," he said. "They eat."

He gained 10 or 12 pounds, too much to run as fast as he could have, but his blistering 56-second final lap in his eighth-place finish won the attention of Adolf Hitler, who demanded to shake the hand of the spunky American.

He enlisted in the Army in 1941 and was sent to Hawaii in October 1942. During a rescue mission searching for a B-25 that had reportedly been shot down, Zamperini's plane dived into the sea; he and two crewmates were the only survivors. One died before they drifted to the Marshall Islands, southwest of Hawaii. By the time a Japanese trawler picked them up, Zamperini weighed about 79 pounds.

Zamperini and pilot Russell Phillips were moved from prison camp to prison camp, tortured, beaten, fed vermin-infested rice. He was forced to speak during a Japanese radio propaganda broadcast. He held out until Japan surrendered in 1945, when he was promoted to captain and awarded the Purple Heart, among other medals.

He foundered after the war but later became active in his local church, particularly with youth groups. His torchbearing career began in 1984, before the Los Angeles Games, and that, in turn, opened a new world for him.

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