In 1931 at a locksmith shop, Louie overhears that if you put any key in any lock, there is a one in fifty chance of it fitting. When he finds that his house key fits the door of the Torrance High gym, he begins letting kids into basketball games for free. This lands him in trouble with the school principal, who bans him from school activities. Upon hearing this, Pete convinces the principal to let Louie join a sport, thinking Louie could benefit from the earned praise and discipline of athletics. Pete, a ten varsity-letter athlete, thinks that Louie has talent as a runner. Though Louie finishes last in his first race, Pete pushes him to train. Soon, Louie starts winning races and even finishes fifth at the All-City Finals.
Though Louie finds success as a runner, the rigorous demands of training are too much for him, and one day he can’t bear to be constrained anymore. After an argument with his father, Anthony, Louie runs away. With a friend, Louie hitchhikes to Los Angeles and the next day the two boys climb on a train and ride north. Louie intends to leave forever. Soon after, they are found and kicked off the train. They grow hungry and tired, and a few days later they return home. When Louie returns, defeated and deflated, he tells Pete he will train as much as Pete wants him to.
In the summer of 1932, Louie does nothing but run. He trains on an Indian Reservation and comes home with a newfound passion for running. He trains constantly, running instead of biking his paper route and even staying underwater for nearly four minutes at the local pool to train his lungs. Louie finds a hero in miler Glenn Cunningham, who overcame the effects of severe burns before he started a running career. Louie starts junior college, and gains popularity among his peers. He wins the class presidency, and girls trail after him. Before too long, he runs sub-five minute miles. Even though he is short, his unique gait gives him a seven-foot stride. At the two-mile race in UCLA’s Cross Country meet, he beats college competition by more than a quarter mile.
Under Pete’s continued guidance, Louie begins to win every race, taking down every challenger. In the 1934 Southern California Track and Field Championship, Louie breaks the national high school mile record by running it in four minutes and twenty-one seconds. His only regret is that he feels he could have run his second lap faster. His speed and newfound admiration earn him the nickname “The Torrance Tornado.” He has becomes a regional celebrity.
Louie begins to think he can make the 1936 Olympic team for the 1500-meter race. After graduating high school, he is offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where Pete attends. Pete urges him to delay entry until the fall and to train full-time. Louie moves into Pete’s frat house and starts training every day, but he simply isn’t improving fast enough to make the Olympic team.
Though Louie is heartbroken about not being able to make the 1500-meter tram, he soon hears about the Compton Open, an elite meet headlined by the 5000-meter run. Though Louie has never trained for that long distance, he enters the meet with one goal in mind: to stay with Norman Bright, a runner considered a lock for the Olympic team. During the race, Louie hangs on to Bright, losing by only a tiny margin. His Olympic dreams are alive again and he soon qualifies for the finals of the Olympic trials to be held in New York. The town of Torrance sends Louie off with their hopes riding on his shoulders.