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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.
In New York, the heat is absolutely devastating. Forty people die from the hottest summer on record in Manhattan. All of the athletes are dehydrated and losing weight. Still, Louie trains as hard as possible. The day of the race, Bright is expected to finish second to a dominant runner named Don Lash, who is considered unbeatable. When the race starts in the hundred-degree heat, Lash bounds into the lead and Louie hangs back. Slowly but surely, he moves up and up until he is neck-and-neck with Lash. As he crosses the finish, the town of Torrance, listening over the radio, erupts in cheers. Louie wins the race. A few minutes later, the announcer corrects himself that Lash had actually won, but it didn’t matter to Louie, because he was still going to the Berlin Olympics as the youngest distance runner to ever compete for the U.S. team.
At the beginning of Chapter Two, Louie is still a lost soul, caught up in all sorts of trouble. There seems to be no chance of him turning his life around because every time he tries to better himself, it goes wrong. When he finally finds a key that fits an unexpected lock, he is unknowingly set on his path to rehabilitation. The only hiccup in Louie’s betterment in this chapter is his attempt to run away. Though unsuccessful, this was a necessary developmental step for Louie. This journey prepares him for later experiences in his life. Right before Louie leaves, his mother offers him a sandwich and his father offers two dollars. These offerings work as symbols of the unconditional love that his parents have for him, even when he tries to leave them. When Louie is actually out on his own, the sandwich and money serve as reminders of the comfort of home, and are ultimately the driving factors that bring him back home. He realizes how much he loves his family. This initial longing for home, and appreciation of home, becomes a motif in the book, when Louie is lost at sea and then a prisoner of war.
Every hero needs a mentor. In The Odyssey, Athena literally takes the form of a man named Mentor in order to help Odysseus and his family. In this story, Pete is Louie’s mentor, and Louie blossoms under Louie’s coaching. Pete shows that coaching is not only about the physical training. It is also about mental and emotional preparation, along with strategy. Hillenbrand also continues the development of Pete’s character as a responsible and fatherly presence in this chapter. Pete again seems to be capable of doing no wrong, as everything he does is compassionate and in the best interest of his loved ones. Pete is the only one who can coral and guide Louie. Pete also believes in Louie. He is the mentor figure to him, a guiding spirit, a guardian angel, a third parent. His self-sacrifice, in putting Louie first, enables Louie’s running success and empowers Louie’s self-confidence.
Louie’s life can help readers reflect on their own lives. Louie and Pete do not begin with an end goal for what Louie would do with his running. Instead, they take steps forward and then make smart decisions where they can. Sometimes in life obstacles and disappointment can cause people to steer in a direction they had not intended to go. This happens to Louie when he steers toward the 5000-meter run. He had not previously considered, or known, his ability to run this longer distance. He learns about his abilities as he goes along. Louie’s abilities to take on new challenges and to adapt to new situations are some of his character strengths, traits that serve him well later in the story. Interestingly, these abilities also make his athletic story so dramatic and engaging for his fans from Torrance and beyond.
The heat serves as an important equalizer at the Olympic trials. Though Louie doesn’t have nearly as much experience as the rest of the field, he is willing to run and train harder than anyone else. The heat makes it incredibly difficult to train and race, but Louie is fully committed to finishing in the top three. His ability to push his body to its limits and absolute desire to win allow him to qualify, despite his inexperience. This ability to take a beating and to persevere against all odds will serve Louie well later in life, when he finds himself in war. Louie sees how much he can endure. He builds and exhibits not only physical strength, but also mental strength.