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Award winner transforms from survivor to inspirer

(Ed. note: Louis Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014. This article was originally published in 2011.)

Louis Zamperini, 94-year-old World War II survivor and former USC runner, is one of two 2012 NCAA Inspiration Award recipients. Photo Courtesy of Louis Zamperini.

Each time Louis Zamperini signs a copy of his life’s story – the bestselling book “Unbroken” – he starts with the words “Be hardy.”

That, Zamperini says, is the key to his jaw-dropping story from World War II, which starts in a hopeless situation before descending into the darkest pits of inhumanity, revealing in the process the potential of a man’s spirit. The Southern California track star and Olympian was stranded on a raft without food or water, washed ashore into enemy hands, beaten, tortured and starved. But he emerged to find spiritual salvation and become an inspiration to the millions who have heard his tale – the reason Zamperini will be honored with the NCAA’s 2012 Inspiration Award at January’s NCAA Convention.

Zamperini is one of two Inspiration Award recipients this year. The other is Jill Costello, a former rower at the University of California, Berkeley, who died in June 2010 after a long battle with cancer during which she established a national foundation and raised awareness of the disease.

The NCAA Inspiration Award may be presented to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter-winner at an NCAA institution. The award is reserved for people who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome or deal with the event. The Inspiration Award is not presented automatically on an annual basis.

The 94-year-old Zamperini more than meets the criteria. Still, when he signs his biography or speaks to audiences hoping to draw insight from his experiences, he keeps the message simple. Stay mentally and physically hardy, he says. Be capable of solving your own problems. Prepare for any eventuality, and refuse to give in to adversity.

“Don’t take the easy way out,” Zamperini says. “Resist all temptations to indulge, temptations to hate, temptations to take the easy way out. Ask yourself: If I do this, can I live with myself for the rest of my life?”

Zamperini ran track and USC before his experiences in World War II. Photo Courtesy of Louis Zamperini.

Zamperini, a mischievous youth from Torrance, Calif., trained himself to push through difficult tests as a young track star. He set the high school world record in the mile before, at age 19, finishing eighth in the 5,000-meter run at the 1936 Olympics. A future medal was gleaming in his eyes as he moved on to the University of Southern California and set the collegiate record for the mile two years later. But when World War II broke out, those athletics achievements turned out to be a warm-up for a 31-month series of unimaginable circumstances that tested the resolve of Zamperini’s spirit.

Stationed in Hawaii in 1943 as an Army bombardier, Zamperini was sent on a rescue mission with 11 others aboard an aging B-24. Zamperini was one of three survivors when engine failure caused the plane to crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where they floated on a raft for 47 days with only a few pints of water and six chocolate bars. Once those rations were depleted, they nursed on small fish, sharks, birds and rainwater. The trio endured severe dehydration, starvation, severe sun burns by day and cold by night, daily shark attacks and an assault from a Japanese bomber.

Yet when the raft finally washed ashore on a Pacific island, two weeks after one of the survivors perished at sea, the destination presented a more dreadful prospect than life on the raft. After drifting 2,000 miles, they washed onto the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands, where Zamperini was taken prisoner. For 30 months he was jailed, threatened with execution, tortured, beaten and humiliated for his captor’s amusement, employed as a slave laborer and starved. By war’s end his weight had dropped well below 100 pounds, a skeletal shadow of his Olympic form. And while he was hailed as a hero upon his return to the United States – where he was presumed dead – his nights were consumed by irate dreams of strangling his Japanese captors. His medicine for the pain became alcohol.

As Zamperini struggled to maintain a grip on his life, his wife, Cynthia, urged him to attend a speaking engagement by young evangelist Billy Graham. The message he heard of forgiveness changed Zamperini’s view of life. He formed the Victory Boys Camp, where he taught troubled juveniles the skills to succeed in life. And in the early 1950s he decided to become a missionary to Japan, returning to the POW camps where he was once held, facing his captors and forgiving them for their war-time actions.

His odyssey of endurance and forgiveness has since been heralded as an example of man’s virtue, even when faced with its polar antagonists. It was told during the closing ceremonies of the 1998 Nagano Games, where he was asked to carry the Olympic torch in a moment that symbolized the spirit of the event. It was also laid down in three different books – two autobiographies (each titled “Devil at my Heels”) and the current bestseller written by Pulitzer-prize winning author Laura Hillenbrand, which was named Time Magazine’s 2010 Non-Fiction Book of the Year. That account, which reached No.1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list, was recently optioned to Universal Studios.

Zamperini eventually returned to Japan and forgave his captors. Photo Courtesy of Louis Zamperini.

Even at 94, Zamperini continues to give motivating speeches to corporate and Christian groups, military veterans and USC student-athletes, where his magnetic personality and mesmerizing life story continue to enthrall audiences.

“An inspiration is probably an understatement,” said USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone. “It’s hard to describe the worth, the value of such a treasure as Louis Zamperini. … Louis is a true American hero. Those are hard to find, and hard to come by these days. He’s a national treasure.”