Finish Strong – Lessons From an American Hero

Louis "Louie" Zamperini


Born to Italian immigrants, he grew up in Torrance, CA. There he and trouble become good friends. It’s not that he was a bad kid – you might get away with calling him curious. He began smoking at age five. He became a favorite target for kids to antagonize mainly because once riled up he would curse – in Italian – which the other kids loved. Torrance was a one police car town at the time and if it was heading south, he made a point to head north – fast. He was so fleet of foot that it was said he could steal beer from bootleggers and literally out run them.

His older brother convinced him to run track in high school, believing that doing so would redirect the path of delinquency his younger sibling was on. His hunch was correct. His brother ran – so fast that he set the national record in the mile for high school. So fast that he was dubbed the Torrance Tornado. So fast that he was invited to try out for the 1936 Olympic team. Running . He was badly behind in the 5,000 meter race when he started his kick and caught up to the race leader – American record holder Don Lash – and ran with him stride-for-stride to the finish line to qualify.

In Berlin, he wanted a souvenir. When a Nazi flag caught his eye he shimmied up the pole, grabbed the flag and slid back down. The SS soldiers weren’t very amused – as he ran off with the flag they fired warning shots. He stopped – and somehow was allowed to keep the flag. He didn’t fare as well in the race. He was at the back of the pack with his inexperience showing. Then came his kick – that kick which became his signature – and while he didn’t medal, his final push set a one lap record of 56 seconds. Adolph Hitler shook his hand while he congratulated the young man on his effort.

He set his sights on the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. He made it to Japan, but as a POW – not as an Olympian. He survived a plane crash into the Pacific, 47 days and 2,000 miles in a raft only to find land – in Japanese territory. His first stop was called ‘Execution Island’ and a guard the prisoners called ‘the Bird’. The Bird was the most brutal  and vicious of all the guards and he took a special interest in the US Olympian. His captors attempted to use his notoriety for propaganda. When he refused, he was starved, beaten and brutalized more so even than other prisoners. He was moved to several POW camps – each time the Bird showed up. 

Desperate, he engaged his trademark kick. This time it was mental – attitudinal. He began to describe amazing and delicious Italian recipes to other prisoners. He focused on the positive. His “winners’ attitude” kicked in. Eventually, the war ended. He had survived but came home a troubled and wandering.

He met Billy Graham and found a Faith he had never known. This was a kick of a different nature. He focused his life on forgiveness. He became an inspirational speaker. In 1998 he was asked to run in the Olympic torch relay for the Nagano Games. The kilometer he ran was adjacent to Naoetsu, his final POW camp.

Nearly sixty years after the war his story written by Laura Hillenbrand which became the best-selling book Unbroken. His story will become a major movie release later this year. It’s not the book or the movie or the notoriety that made him a fearless brand, those all came to be because Louis “Louie” Zamperini was a fearless brand – a man unbroken.

Fearless Brands know that it’s how you finish that matters

Louie died last week at the age of 97. His story – his life – is literally the stuff of movies and best-selling novels. Throughout his life,  Zamperini responded to challenges by finding a kick. From a boy outrunning bootleggers with the beer he had stolen to the man who endured the physical and mental horrors of the Bird, he always found a way to finish. 

He traveled to Japan to visit not just the location of his imprisonment – but to meet his captors. They were amazed when Louie shook their hands and verbally forgave them for all of their actions against him and countless others. Forgiveness is powerful. One guard wouldn’t meet with him – the Bird – which was a true disappointment to Louie.

Hillenbrand can relate to Zamperini’s POW experience in that she rarely leave her house. She suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and vertigo. She has never been on a book tour – so to promote the book, Louie brought another kick. At the age of 93 he did a book tour for Unbroken.

Well into his nineties, Zamperini flew a twin engine plane, drove the highways of Los Angeles day and night and continued to share his motivation and salvation. 

There are so many aspects to and lessons we can learn from Louie Zamperini’s life – but I’ll focus on just two –

Finish and finish strong – A theme that continued throughout Zamperini’s life was his kick. He always found something – some way – to finish strong – even in defeat. It’s how we finish that really matters. Having the right ‘road map’ helps. Have a plan, know your end goal and whatever it takes – finish strong to achieve it.

Be convicted – be ‘unbroken’ – I believe that it was his conviction that led Louie to finish strong – to have that kick – in everything he did. He believed he would catch Don Lash in that first qualifying race. He believed he would survive 47 days in a raft on the ocean catching shark with his bare hands for food. He had more than belief, he had conviction.

Louie Zamperini died a war hero, a sports hero, a life hero. His story is fascinating and I hope you consider reading Unbroken or at least seeing the movie in the Fall. Here’s the good news – we don’t need to live quite the dramatic life that Louie did to live ‘unbroken’. When you’re building your fearless brand – learn from Louie. Believe. Have conviction. Finish strong.

Friday's Fearless Brand

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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