There for his Trojan brother
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.
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.
Barkley’s father, Les, was a USC water polo player when Naber was a Trojans swimmer. Barkley met Zamperini through Naber and has spent time at Zamperini’s home.
“We watched the Winter Olympics together,” Barkley said. “He’s one of my heroes.”
Zamperini has a website, and Naber monitors the comments. One has stuck with him.
“It was from a kid living in Pennsylvania,” Naber said. “He knew Louis was going to speak in Fort Wayne (Ind.) and asked if he came to Fort Wayne could he spend five minutes alone with Louis.
“We get so many of those. It’s physically just not possible.
“So we’re flying to Fort Wayne through Chicago and were sitting at the gate for the connection to Fort Wayne. My fault, I wasn’t paying attention, and all of a sudden I noticed no one was at our gate. They had moved the flight and I missed the announcement and we missed the flight. The best we could do was get a later connection to South Bend.
“Louie and I are waiting for that, and I’m berating myself for getting us into this, when a kid walks up to Louie and says, ‘You’re Louie Zamperini, right?’ Louie said yes and the kid is so excited and tells Louie he was the one on the website and he was flying on his way to Fort Wayne and the only way he could get there was through South Bend.
“Louie looks at me, could have been upset with me, but there he sat patiently and then he said, ‘I guess that’s why we missed the flight. So we could meet this young man.’
“Tell me I don’t learn from Louie. Take life as it comes and look for the silver lining.”
Zamperini nodded and said, “That’s what I learned at the Olympics. That’s what I learned from sports. You take what comes and then take it again.”
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Athletics: Placed 8th in the 5,000-meter run in 1936 Summer Olympics.
Military: As a pilot during World War II, earned a Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross and Prisoner of War Medal.
Athletics: Won four gold medals in swimming at the 1976 Summer Olympics.