This article on future Olympian Lopez Lomong appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 26, 2006
Kidnapped by the Sudanese army as a child, Lopez Lomong escaped the life of a child soldier the best way he knew how — with his feet
By Ed Odeven
Lopez Lomong runs because he’s a good runner. In tough times, he ran as a means of survival.
As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong, the second-oldest child of five, was attending a church service with his parents in their small African village. The, as quickly as he now runs an 800-meter race, his life completely changed.
Lomong was abducted by Sudanese soldiers. He didn’t know what happened to his parents.
Years later he found out.
“They told me that we were taken away and they (the soldiers) actually left them alone because they needed child soldiers like us,” said Lomong, an NAU freshman who competes in the 800 at the NCAA West Region Outdoor Track and Field Championships this weekend (qualifying is this afternoon, the final round is Saturday).
“I was taken with the other kids somewhere in Sudan,” he recalled.
But he didn’t become a child soldier in the civil war that has devastated his country.
“Me and two of my friends, we escaped from that camp and we ended up in Kenya,” he said.
“Running … and running and running,” Lomong said.
Lomong, now 21, started living in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, when he was 6.
He became one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, one of thousands who were displaced by the war in Sudan.
His family didn’t know of his whereabouts, and he didn’t know where his brothers, sisters and parents were or if they were alive.
When he was 16, Lomong arrived in the United States thanks to the efforts of Catholic Charities, an organization which has helped thousands of Lost Boys resettle in the United States.
Lomong settled in the small town of Tully, N.Y., which is located in the Syracuse metropolitan area.
“I was a minor when I came,” Lomong said. “So (Catholic Services) actually helped me out to find foster parents.”
Robert and Barbara Rogers, who had one child already grown up, were eager to have another youngster in the family.
“They are awesome people,” Lopez said, flashing a smile.
“They were giving me everything and teaching me everything, like switching on the lights and all those things. I didn’t know how to do ’em. … All the time, they helped me out (and to) adapt to a new culture.”
The Rogers’ outpouring of love and devotion included their support of his athletic pursuits.
“They were going to all my track meets in high school,” he said.
So they saw Lopez earn nine varsity letters in cross country and track and field. They saw him set several school records in cross country. They saw Lopez, a three-time team captain, win a New York state crown in the mile. And they saw him lead Tully High School to state titles in the 4×400-meter and 4×800-meter relays.
He also exhibited his running talents on the national stage, placing 20th at a Footlocker Nationals competition.
“Lopez was a dominant figure in all his races during his high-school career in the small town in upstate N.Y. where he went to school,” recalled Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance running coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training who saw Lomong compete in high school when he was the cross country/track coach at SUNY-Cortland, a small school near Tully.
“What always set Lopez apart from many runners was his ‘go-for-broke’ attitude which is typical of the good distance runners in Africa. I have others tell me they just go as hard as they can hang on for the win, great; if not, they will try again next time.”
Since enrolling at NAU last fall, Lomong has had a successful freshman season as a student-athlete. He placed 19th at the NCAA Pre-National Championships race in Indiana last October.
He captured Big Sky Conference indoor titles in the 800 and 1,500 in February and replicated that feat two weeks ago at the Big Sky outdoor meet, crossing the finish line in 1 minute, 48.86 seconds and 3:48.64.
This, of course, put a smile on Robert and Barbara Rogers’ faces.
They routinely monitor Lomong’s track career via the Internet.
Said Lomong: “They are so happy about that and they are calling me (on the phone): ‘Keep going.’ ”
Lumberjacks head coach J.W. Hardy expresses the same optimism about Lomong’s racing, but does so in a more detailed manner.
“I don’t really think he fully understands what he’s capable of doing,” Hardy said, “and I think that’s really been the progression for him throughout the season. As the season has gone on, I think he’s getting a better understanding of what it takes to be a top-level athlete.
“(Distance running) coach (John) Hayes is doing a great job of bringing him along and getting him to understand what it really takes to be a force at the national level. I think he’s got amazing talent, and there’s so much more that he has to offer.
“We’ve just got to kind of wait and see how far his training will take him this season.”
Lomong is confident he’ll win the 800 Saturday.
“Run smart, relaxed,” he said. “I’ve got more speed than anyone else in the Big Sky Conference …. and a lot of endurance. (With) about 300 or 200 (meters) to go, it’s my race.”
To prepare for regionals, Hayes has guided Lomong through a series of challenging speed-related workouts, focused on lots of drills for 300s and 600s.
It’s paid off.
“I think it’s working really, really well. I’m ready,” he said.
And if there’s one thing Hardy has learned about Lomong in the past season, it’s that he’s not afraid of hard work.
“He cane in and had to battle through learning English, getting through learning another language, dealing with the academics and this and that in an American high school and then to be able to move on,” Hardy said. “…It’s been a joy to see him go out and improve, academically and athletically. I think there’s a lot left in Lopez. We’ve seen a lot in one year, but there’s so much more that we could see out of this young man out of the next three years.”
And, remember, this season’s not over yet.
Lomong has plenty of motivation for today’s 800, a race in which he’s seeded No. 3 (1:48.86; USC’s Duane Solomon is first in 1:47.74).
“If I make it to nationals, they’ll be there at nationals,” he said of the Rogerses, his American family.
Three years ago, Lomong was adjusting to his new life in the United States. He was struggling to learn American English. Before coming here, he had a limited knowledge of British English.
“It’s been kind of a challenge, studying. … Yeah, I came a long way,” he said.
Sudan. Kenya. Upstate New York. Flagstaff.
These are all destinations on Lomong’s life map. And throughout his unforgettable journeys from East Africa to the Western U.S., Lomong has grown into a bona fide running standout — “I think his ability is limitless in the 1,500,” said Hayes, citing his exceptional combination of speed and endurance — he never stopped thinking about his roots: his beloved parents.
Three years ago, Lopez learned his parents, Rita Namana Lomong and Lomong Lomong were alive. A U.S. organization had located them, he said.
“Some friends in Africa called me up and said, ‘You mom’s around here.’ I was like, ‘Wow, what a thrill,’ ” he said. “And I just called them and we talked. And she was crying. And I was crying. There was a lot of things going on, and trying to figure it out was very hard.”
His family now resides in Thika, Kenya, a small town near the nation’s capital city, Nairobi. His four siblings are there, too.
This has given him some peace of mind. But this much is clear: They are always on his mind.
In every race, Lomong demonstrates this.
“When I step on the track, I’m doing it for the school and also representing them back home,” Lomong said. “Every time I come to that lap, something flies through my (mind) and I can see their picture and I go and do work, you know.”
Lomong plans to visit Kenya in the summer of 2007, the first time he’ll see his family in 16 years.
He’ll run into their arms.