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There for his Trojan brother

John Naber and Louis Zamperini, 40 years apart in age, are USC alumni, Olympians and as close as family.

November 25, 2011|Diane Pucin
  • John Naber, left, helps Louis Zamperini sign books at his home.
John Naber, left, helps Louis Zamperini sign books at his home. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

John Naber is 55 and Louis Zamperini will be 95 in January, but they have two significant things in common: Both were Olympians and both were USC Trojans.

And that is enough.

Naber, who lives in Pasadena, was a USC swimming star who won five medals -- four of them gold -- at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

Zamperini, who lives in the Hollywood Hills, was a track phenom at USC. And though he didn't win an Olympic medal, folded on a table in his living room is a swastika flag he tore from a wall and took home as a souvenir from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Most of Zamperini's story is well-known, chronicled in the bestselling book "Unbroken," which was published a year ago.

Written by Laura Hillenbrand, the book offers an account of Zamperini's sports exploits as well as how he was captured and imprisoned after spending 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean when his fighter plane was shot down by the Japanese in World War II.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Louis Zamperini: In the Nov. 25 Sports section, an article about the relationship between former Olympians and USC athletes John Naber and Louis Zamperini said that Zamperini's fighter plane was shot down by the Japanese during World War II. Zamperini was in a bomber as a bombardier and the plane went down because of mechanical difficulties.

Since then, Zamperini has lived a life of both sorrow and triumph. He suffered from alcoholism when he came home from the war and fought despair when he realized he could never be a world-class track athlete again.

He found love, married, had children. He worked in the movie industry and became a Christian after meeting Billy Graham.

Zamperini and Naber met when they took part in the Olympic torch relay for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. After Zamperini's children grew up and moved away, and then his wife, Cynthia, died in 2001, Naber sensed that his friend might need some help.

"It was the idea of one Olympian helping another," Naber said, "one USC Trojan helping another, one Christian helping another."

Naber drives to Zamperini's home three or four times a week. He helps Zamperini keep track of his medications, makes sure Zamperini takes a nap and also handles all the requests for autographs and interviews that come Zamperini's way.

Naber said it is an honor to spend so much time with a fellow Olympian.

"It sounds a little corny," Naber said, "but there is a bond."

Said Zamperini: "There's a camaraderie. And not just between Americans. Between Olympians too."

On Sunday, both men attended the Golden Goggles swimming awards banquet in Los Angeles.

"I was invited to receive the perseverance award," Zamperini said.

"Every woman from the national team wanted to give me a kiss. What can I say? So I had my picture taken with Amy Van Dyken, Kaitlin Sandeno and Summer Sanders, gorgeous women. I don't think I've ever been to a celebration or affair like it."

By his side was Naber, who accompanies Zamperini to nearly every engagement.

Last month, the two flew to New York. Zamperini had been scheduled to appear on "Late Show With David Letterman," but he became ill after getting dehydrated on the flight.

"I like to sleep on planes," Zamperini said, "but if I sleep I don't drink water."

Zamperini missed the television appearance but did get a chance to meet Hillenbrand. The author is housebound because of a chronic illness and had done the book by speaking with Zamperini on the telephone.

"It was so special," Zamperini said. "I was so happy when I found out she was feeling well enough to see me."

Zamperini is feeling pretty good himself. He takes walks and cooks his own meals. His daughter, Cissy, and son, Luke, call him several times a day, but Zamperini values his freedom and living in his home.

Zamperini also still drives. He has a Subaru, his brand since 1973.

"I was looking for a new car that year and I saw the Subaru headquarters in the Valley," Zamperini said. "They had a sign that said, 'We're the importer of the official Olympic car.'

"I went in and said, 'I'm an Olympian.' So they gave me a deal."

Around Zamperini's home, Naber does his best to keep an eye on things. He makes sure the refrigerator is full, everything electrical is in working order and that the gorgeous garden is groomed.

As Zamperini spoke to a visitor this week, he was sitting at a wooden table piled high with books awaiting his signature. Meantime, Naber took several phone calls, each caller asking to speak with Zamperini or to schedule an appearance.

Sometimes Naber is the bad cop. He makes Louie eat his vegetables, take his pills, and drink his water. And he says no.

Even a request that seems simple -- a man wanting to visit Zamperini's home to shake his hand -- must be thoughtfully considered.

"At my age," Zamperini said, "it can seem like a long walk to the door. And then, you know, I have to go back."

But Zamperini is not content to just stay home. He went skiing until he was 91. "I didn't stop because I couldn't ski," he said. "It was because those snowboarders come down the hill at 58 miles an hour."

Reminded that snowboarding is an Olympic sport now, Zamperini rolled his eyes.

He also would skateboard until about five years ago. This amazes another friend, USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who has bonded with Zamperini because of their Trojan ties.

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