Louie Zamperini lay on the in-field turf at the 1936 Olympic trials in New York City. It was a scorching +100 degrees in the new stadium on Randall’s Island. Louie, like all the other athletes, had been struggling through a long heat wave in July that would eventually kill 40 people in Manhattan. Like all the athletes competing in the trials, it wasn’t enough just to exist in the heat, they also had to train. Some historians would say that every athlete lost at least 10 pounds. Even though Louie didn’t have much to lose, he too lost lots of weight and felt weak headed into the big day.
Though the heat had weakened the whole field of athletes, Louie knew he had to focus on the task at hand and not dwell on the temperature. Blocking out the image of dozens of athletes passing out and getting carted off in exhaustion, Louie returned to his mental preparation.
Louie closed his eyes and envisioned the race he had to run.
Louie had made a name for himself as the nation’s fastest high school miler, which is where he earned the nickname, the Torrance Tornado. However, he was preparing to run a race more than 3 times that length. Louie was facing the start of the 5,000 meters. At age 19, he had only competed in the grueling, 12-lap race three times so far. He was going up against Don Lash, a three-time NCAA champion that was considered by many to be unbeatable, and Norman Bright, who had beat Louie twice the past two times they had competed at this distance.
But Louie was undaunted.
He wrote home to his older brother, Pete, “If I have any strength left from the heat, I’ll beat Bright and give Lash the scare of his life.”
All the 5,000 meter runners were called to the starting line. The starter fired the gun and Louie quickly found himself in the middle of the second pack of runners. Don and Norman lead from the very beginning and kept a brisk pace considering the sweltering heat.
During the race, a couple of runners in the middle pack passed out from heat exhaustion and Louie and the other runners had to hurdle them. Nine laps passed, 10 laps passed, and Louie knew he needed to make a move soon if he was going to keep his Olympic hopes alive.
Norman stumbled when he stepped off the track slightly and twisted his ankle. He continued to run, but was overtaken by the rest of the runners. By the beginning of the final lap, Don and fellow Indiana teammate Tom Deckard were cruising in the lead, but Louie was making his move. He passed all the other runners on the back stretch until Don’s back was only a few yards in front of him.
As they approached the last turn, Louie wavered. In front of him was the man everyone had told him was the best in the USA. He had been the top 5,000 meter runner for three years and was practically guaranteed a spot in the Olympics. How could Louie hope to defeat him? And yet, there he was right in front of him.
With just over 125 yards to go, Louie pushed those thoughts aside and made his move to pass. Unfortunately that was the same moment when Don made his move to pass Tom Decker, who had led the last lap. Veering to the right, Louie lost momentum but he kept pushing. Down the stretch both runners gave everything they had in order to reach the finish first. They threw themselves across the finish. Louie was first named the winner, then Don was said to have won. The final ruling was that it was a tie. He would beat Don at the 1936 Olympics and finish seventh in his first and last Olympics.
Louie started life as a misfit that stole and made disobedience his lot in life. He was often running from the law and fighting with bullies. When he realized the thrill of a roaring crowd, and his thirst to win, Louie transformed into a superior athlete. His mindset to win regardless of what others thought, served him well as he and two other Army Air Corp crewmen were stranded at sea for 47 days. One died before they were eventually discovered and imprisoned by the Japanese, where he would suffer in prisoner-of-war camps for years. His extra-ordinary journey is well chronicled in Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.
How many times have you been told you aren’t as good as someone else; or maybe indirectly compared with someone else? No matter their intentions, we may all have a similar moment as Louie. We hold back because others have told us it can’t be done or someone else will do it better.
No one knows your heart. You won’t know how far you can go until you have tried. Even then, if you only try half-heartedly, you will still not know how far you could have gone. Choose to believe in yourself. Choose to give it your all. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish.