My Turn: Another 'Unbroken' story worth telling

On Christmas Day, the film adaptation of the best-selling book “Unbroken” is scheduled to be released in movie theaters across the nation, telling the triumphant story of Olympic runner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini.

Zamperini, who died in July at age 97, lived a life truly worthy of a best-seller, becoming one of the great distance runners of his generation, competing in the 1936 Olympics before enlisting in the Army Air Corps prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the spring of 1943, Zamperini was on board a B-24 flying a search mission for a fallen pilot when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He and two crewmates survived the crash, somehow enduring 47 days on a makeshift raft in brutal heat and in shark-filled waters.

After more than a month-and-a-half adrift, Zamperini and the pilot of the B-24 washed ashore on a tiny Pacific island – into the waiting hands of Japanese captors. For months, Zamperini was repeatedly beaten and tortured, miraculously surviving the ordeal until he was rescued from the POW camp at war’s end in August 1945.

Of course, there is much more to Zamperini’s story, including a willingness to forgive his wartime tormenters and his role in establishing a camp for troubled youths.

His remarkable journey reminded me of another heroic tale by a teammate of Zamperini’s on the 1936 Olympic squad, a 1,500-meter star named Glenn Cunningham.

In 1988, my father and I had the privilege of meeting Cunningham at the AAU-Sullivan Award dinner at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. The big story that evening revolved around Jim Abbott, a pitcher on the University of Michigan baseball team who was that year’s recipient of the Sullivan Award, an honor presented to the outstanding amateur athlete.

Abbott, who later would pitch for the New York Yankees, tossing a no-hitter while a member of the Pinstripes, was born without a right hand, but nevertheless became a star quarterback in high school and an ace pitcher in college and the pros.

Yet, it was Cunningham, winner of the Sullivan Award in 1933, who drew most of the attention from those of my father’s generation.

And for good reason.

At age 7, Cunningham and his 13-year-old brother attended a one-room country school in Elkhart, Kan. The school was heated by a stove in the corner that was started each morning with kindling and a dousing of kerosene. On this fateful morning, there was gasoline in the can, and the resultant explosion and fire turned Cunningham and his brother into human torches.

His brother died nine days later. In turn, Cunningham was told that his legs would have to be amputated or he would likely die of infection from the burns. He and his parents thought otherwise, even though the best-case scenario was that he would never walk again.

Two years later, Cunningham was walking. Months later, he began slowly running, methodically building his speed and stamina until he became one of the first great indoor runners. He won a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the ’36 Olympics, was a five-time American champion at that distance, and set several world records, highlighted by a 4:06.7 mile in 1938.

On that Monday evening in March 1988, my father and I marveled at Cunningham’s appearance, his manner, and his disdain for any fanfare over his accomplishments, preferring instead to take a backseat to other Sullivan Award winners who were present for the occasion. Wilma Rudolph, Olympic sprint champion of the 1960s, was there, as was Tracy Caulkins, a gold medalist swimmer.

Several days later, while we still were basking in afterglow of the Sullivan Award festivities, my father called to see if I had read one of the front page stories in the Friday morning paper.
“Glenn Cunningham, who overcame a life-threatening injury as a child and became one of the world’s greatest middle-distance runners, died of an apparent heart attack. He was 78.”
We only knew him for an evening, but it was if we had lost an old friend. A week that started so beautifully ended in sadness.

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