Lopez Lomong’s great escape

This article on future Olympian Lopez Lomong appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 26, 2006

SOLE SURVIVOR

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.

How?

“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.

His strategy?

“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.

Q&A with Olympic runner Lopez Lomong

Two-time Olympian Lopez Lomong, who was born in Sudan, was the U.S. flag bearer during the opening ceremony at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Two-time Olympian Lopez Lomong, who was born in Sudan, was the U.S. flag bearer during the opening ceremony at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 2, 2013) — Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, has grown into a world-class runner and humanitarian with an important story to tell. He details this story in “Running for My Life,” his autobiography that was published last year.

Lomong is a two-time Olympian, specializing in the 800- and 1,500-meter races and the mile.

Lopez was kidnapped at age 6 during Sudan’s civil war, and later lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for a decade before resettling in Tully, New York, with Catholic Charities providing support.

Lomong became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2007. He attended Northern Arizona University, where I first met him in 2005 while reporting on the NAU Lumberjacks cross country and track and field teams. Lopez captured the NCAA 1,500-meter indoor title in 2007.

We’ve remained in touch from time to time over the past several years. He now resides in Oregon, a hotbed for world-class runners.

In summarizing his life, Wikipedia added these important details: “Although he originally assumed his parents had been killed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, he was reunited with his mother and family, who now live outside Nairobi, in 2003. He first returned to his native village of Kimotong in December, 2006. He returned to Sudan again in 2008 with an organization called Sudan Sunrise to begin construction of the Lopez Lomong School and Reconciliation Church.[10] In early 2009 he traveled back to bring his younger brothers, Alex and Peter, back to the United States to attend school at Fork Union Military Academy.”

Here’s my most recent interview with Lomong, conducted via email from Japan and the United States in the past few days:

With preparations for the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Moscow picking up steam, how’s training going?

Training is going really well. This is my favorite part of training – the sharpening and speed phase. It is a long season yet so my mileage is still pretty high.

In your opinion, what are the keys to an outstanding 1,500-meter race? Can you pinpoint a few areas you focus on as essential ingredients to success?

Patience is key in a 1,500-meter race. The first few laps of the race position is not too important. In the last 600m you must be very focused on the field and watch for people to begin a kick. It is good to ride on the shoulder of someone who is kicking instead of being the first to expend all of your energy. The final 100m are critical.

How much time in a typical week do you spend watching video footage of your running — practices, races? Do you spend a lot of time studying your running mechanics or that of other elite runners?

I don’t spend any time watching video. I am very comfortable in my running mechanics and to improve my efficiency I spend several hours in the gym every other day doing core work and drills. Every once in awhile I watch a video of a race I’ve run to try to understand where my tactics succeeded or failed. Nothing is better than just getting out there and racing to practice tactics.

Are you a loyal supporter of any pro sports teams in the U.S. or abroad? If so, who’s your favorite(s)?

I am not a very loyal supporter but I do like the N.Y. Giants since they are from my home state. I enjoy watching sports in general, especially college basketball and football.

Mo Farah’s glorious double-gold medal performance in the 5,000 and 10,000 in London was a positive jolt for track and field. And do you believe he’s as important for the sport’s promotional efforts as The World’s Fastest Man, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt?

Mo Farah is a great athlete no doubt! His performance in London in front of a home crowd was fantastic. I aspire to achieve to that level as well as my career progresses. Distance running is a thrilling part of track and field and although distance events generally do not get the same amount of hype as the sprints I think the world is coming to enjoy watching strategy and tactics play out before their eyes in a battle that lasts longer than 10 seconds.

Away from the huge crowds at Olympic Stadium and the media spotlight that comes with it, what’s Farah like on a “normal day” at the track or running trail when he’s just “one of the guys”?

I am not Mo Farah’s training partner (in Oregon) so I cannot comment much on this as we have not spent much time relaxing together.

How has your confidence, running IQ and perspective changed as an athlete by having had the chance to compete in two Olympics and
several other major national and international competitions?

Racing in international competitions changes every athlete’s perspective on training and achievement. At every Olympics I am challenged to imagine what it takes to be successful at the highest level. Olympic competition is draining mentally and physically so it is important to train for that aspect of the Olympics as well. Focus is key at the Olympics as there are so many things pulling your attention in every direction.

Can you describe your book’s basic approach with co-author Mark Tabb? How much time did it take to complete the project? Did he conduct a number of interviews with you for the book? Was most of it done face-to-face or via phone, emails and other forms of communication And did you do a lot of the original writing?

Mark Tabb and I spent about a week together. He shadowed my life and we had long discussions late into the night. He recorded as I dictated my story to him. Mark has a magic with words and he was able to relate my dictated story into written word in a way that keeps the narrative true to my voice. After the initial meeting we met on Skype for several hours every week during the writing chapter. He sent me one chapter a day which I went through carefully, edited, and added new stories and anecdotes. It was a very collaborative process of writing, revision, and sharpening.

I was thrilled to get to work with such an incredible author who could stand in my shoes and relay my story so beautifully. Mark Tabb also had recently adopted two daughters from Africa and this connection allowed him to better imagine my joys and challenges as a new immigrant.

Was there a sense of exhilaration or quiet satisfaction when the book was completed?

It was definitely exhilaration! This is my story but I didn’t write this book for myself. This book is for all of the children in South Sudan who never had the opportunity to tell their stories. I had dreamed for years to be able to bring attention to the children in South Sudan who are in need of such basic things as water and education. I am thrilled that the world can now read my story and engage with their lives and the world in a new way! I wrote this book to inspire people to action – to inspire people to find their purpose in everything they do.

Are you planning to write another book? If so, what’s the planned subject?

Someday I hope to write a follow on book with my girlfriend, Brittany. We have embarked together on a journey in starting out own nonprofit foundation, 4 South Sudan, and through this adventure we have been exposed to incredible joys and despair as we grappled with solving problems in South Sudan. We plan to write a second book someday from our travel journals as we deliver aid in South Sudan. That will be several years down the road still.

What are the biggest challenges South Sudan faces as a young nation? And what areas of investment and international exchange and
partnership are needed most?

As the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan faces the challenges of nation building after surfacing from a civil war that lastest half of the last century. The greatest needs are in infrastructure, like roads, schools, and medical centers. On a local level, communities in South Sudan are in desperate need of clean water sources, education, health care, and nutrition. These are the four areas where our foundation, 4 South Sudan, focuses its effort.

The foundation website is: http://www.lopezlomong.com/lopez-lomong-foundation.html

How often do you travel to South Sudan? For your next trip there, what do you expect to be doing?

I travel to South Sudan about once every other year. My next trip is in November 2013 and I will go to survey the work achieved in drilling boreholes and providing access to clean water sources in several rural villages in South Sudan.

How would you summarize Nelson Mandela’s legacy as leader in South Africa, Africa as a whole, and on the global stage?

Without a doubt, Mandela is one of the world’s greatest leaders of all time. He is a role model to leaders in Africa and abroad and his greatest gift to Africa is the proof that corruption and oppression can be overcome with humility and hard work.

If you could make only one mix CD or an iPod collection with, say, only 100 songs, who are a half-dozen or so musicians or groups that top the list for you?

I like a lot of traditional African music including children’s choir music and traditional Sudanese songs. Outside of this music which makes up the bulk of my iPod, you would find a mix of popular hip hop music and even an occasional country song.

What are your top priorities on and off the track for the remainder of 2013? What do you hope to accomplish before the calendar flips to 2014?

In 2013, I will be heading to World Championships in Moscow, Russia where I will take on the world in the 1500m race. I dream to bring a medal back to the US to say thank you to the American people for giving me a second chance at life. I also hope to use the international platform to speak more about the needs of South Sudan and inspire people to act to make a difference in the lives of children in South Sudan.

As I said above, I will also make a trip to Africa in November and that will be a wonderful way for me to reconnect with the South Sudanese communities and reaffirm the importance of the projects we are undertaking.

Do you hope to compete as an Olympian through – or beyond – the 2020 Summer Games?

Yes I hope to compete as an Olympian at least through the 2020 Games. I hope to keep running as long as I still love what I do and can continue to achieve success for the US.

You’ve mentioned interest in pursuing a career in politics in the future. If so, do you see that happening only in the United States or, possibly, South Sudan?

I am not sure about a political career but rather an engagement in the community. I love public speaking and I hope I can work in the future as an officer to build and enrich communities in the U.S. I love South Sudan as my birth country but I am a proud and strong American and my future lies in the U.S. with my family.

What would you say the the Lopez Lomong Foundation has been able to accomplish since it was established? Can you cite a few examples of top projects?

Over the last few years we have raised over $300,000 for water in South Sudan. That has provided clean water to over 6,000 people for life in communities across South Sudan. We aim to raise $500,000 this year for education where we aim to build 2 primary schools and 1 vocational training center in South Sudan.

What long-term goals do you envision the foundation can pursue and achieve?

We will be working in local communities in South Sudan for at least the next 20 years. When we engage with a community we use an empowerment model based on training and utilizing local citizens to build and take ownership for the projects.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share with sports fans and readers?

Find passion in what you do and run for something you believe in!

Note: Follow Lopez Lomong on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LopezLomong