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.

Naoko “Q-chan” Takahashi’s great disappointment (circa 2008)

Here’s the recap of the 2008 Nagoya International Women’s Marathon as it appeared in The Japan Times.

Takahashi comes up short

Bernard Lagat’s 5,000-meter title at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships

This article on Bernard Lagat’s riveting triumph in the men’s 5,000 meters at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka appeared in The Japan Times on Sept. 3, 2007.

Lagat adds 5K to 1,500 crown

Remembering Ron Clarke, the legendary runner

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 21, 2015) — Ron Clarke, Australian running legend, is the subject of my Sunday Olympic Notebook.

Clarke’s death a few days ago at age 78 was prominent news around the world, with major coverage in newspapers and on websites, as well as broadcast reports.

Here’s what I wrote: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/06/20/olympics/clarkes-legendary-records-still-resonate-50-years-later/#.VYbMLPntmkp

Clarke is featured in numerous YouTube videos, including:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT2ANRbiiH8 (documentary)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F5iCsymMj0 (1964 Tokyo Olympics’ 10,000-meter final)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVlKVWFmfhk (’64 Olympics’ 10,000 final lap)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs6G8NfEyVk (interview with Billy Mills’ about his 10,000 triumph

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znpRcVJjr8I (ABC News Australia “Ron Clarke: The Road to Tokyo”)

Steve Prefontaine’s legacy

I wrote this feature for The Japan Times. The print publication date (May 30) marks the 40th anniversary of runner Steve Prefontaine’s death.

Prefontaine’s legacy still growing 40 years after death

(Column flashback) Remembering the late Johanna Nilsson and one of her finest hours as an athlete

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Dec. 3, 2005.

Note: Johanna Nilsson was one of the most supremely talented athletes I’ve ever seen. She passed away at age 30 in June 2013 in an apparent suicide.

Nilsson’s run-away cross country championship was no small feat

By Ed Odeven

Winning should be enjoyable for any athlete. Sometimes, though, it’s even more enjoyable for a coach.

Such was the case for NAU cross country coach John Hayes on Nov. 21 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

While at nationals, Hayes witnessed history being made in the women’s 6-kilometer race. Lumberjacks standout Johanna Nilsson took first in a field of 253 runners, setting a course-record of 19 minutes, 34 seconds in the process. Nilsson shared or held the lead for the entire race.

“As a coach, you may or may not ever have another NCAA cross-country champion,” Hayes said, flashing a million-dollar smile a week later. “It’s different than track, where there’s all the events. These are all the best distance runners. So I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her this year, and if it works out that she’s able to repeat or come close to a repeat, I’ll be more than happy to be there.”

What’s more, Nilsson, a junior, obliterated the competition, winning by an astounding 12.1 seconds.

Is this really a big deal? You betcha.

Let Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training and one of the world’s foremost running experts, explain why.

“It is not often that a runner can run with the pack, including some very talented runners, for 5,000 meters and in the final 1,000 run away from second place by (almost) 13 seconds,” Daniels said. “You just don’t beat that many good runners by that much in that short a distance.”

It was the fastest time on the course since the 2002 NCAA Championship Race, when North Carolina’s Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line in 19:36.

In other words, it was an exceptional performance.

Or as Hayes put it: “It’s the best race I’ve seen from her. It was so dominant. It was hard to say she could’ve done better.”

During the race, Hayes ran back and forth on the course’s big loop to observe how the seven Lumberjack runners were doing.

It didn’t take Hayes long to realize Nilsson was having an exceptional day. His eyes and ears told him as much.

“With about 800 (or) 1,000 meters to go, I had heard the announcer say she had gapped the field by 15 meters,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, that happened pretty quickly.’ About two minutes later, that 15 meters had become 80 meters. So I knew she was in pretty good shape.”

A week after her extraordinary triumph, Nilsson didn’t appear to be in a state of glee. In fact, when she spoke to reporters about winning her second national title — she won the indoor mile at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Meet — Nilsson downplayed her win.

“I don’t think I’ve been thinking about it that much,” she said. “I mean you notice it because people come up and (and say) congratulations and all that. It’s fun, I guess, but other than that it’s just school and normal life again.”

Nilsson’s response didn’t surprise her coach.

“She’s got so much ability and she’s worked so hard that she tries not to overemphasize one thing,” said Hayes, a former Russian linguist in the Army. For her, she enjoys winning, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of life. It was nice to win. And so we try not to put too much importance on one race.”

Nilsson competed in five races during the fall season, taking first at the Aztec Invitational, Big Sky Championships, NCAA Mountain Region Championships and nationals. At the Pre-National meet, she placed seventh.

Something was special, though, about Nilsson’s performance Nov. 21. And she knew it as soon as the race began.

“In the race I felt really good all the time,” she says now. “I was, like, positive, of course. .. It was a nice feeling. I was like, ‘Maybe this is going to turn out really good.'”

“I guess I’m pretty either/or, up or down with everything I do, maybe that reflects in racing, too,” she added. “I either have good races or (bad) races. When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m off, it’s bad.”

And how big a deal was Nilsson’s victory back home? Three Swedish newspapers interviewed her within two hours after her title-winning race.

Nilsson’s older sister, Ida, closed out her collegiate career by winning the 5,000-meter race at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships. She also won the 3,000 steeplechase at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Championships. And she set more than 25 Big Sky Conference records during her days at NAU. (She’s now in South Africa at a training camp while rehabbing from an injury.)

Does that means Johanna’s success in running has something to do with genetics?

“It’s so hard to figure,” Hayes said. “There’s always the question with great athlete: Is it because they work so hard? Or) is it because they have natural talent? I think you’ve got to have the combination of both, and she’s someone that’s stayed around. She does the extra drills. She does extra stretching where the team is long gone.

“Johanna is doing all the little things to allow her to win in such a dominant fashion.”

Naturally, when she first began participating in running events in her hometown of Kalmar, Sweden, Nilsson enjoyed these activities like other kids enjoy an adventurous game of hide-and-seek.

“It was like you ran (a kilometer) you got an ice cream and candy and you were all happy,” she said. “It wasn’t that competitive.

“You run the 800, you do the 16 (1,600), you do the shot put, and you’re just rushing around. … But then I ended up not being very good at anything else,” she said, laughing.

So she decided to stick with distance running.

It’s unclear, however, if Nilsson’s future will involve competitive running. She did place second at the 2002 Swedish National Cross Country Championship and could probably earn a spot on the 2008 Swedish Olympic team.

“I don’t really have long-term goals,” she said, “because I don’t really function that way too good I guess. So we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do,’ like some of the kids have that dream when they are young.”

Is she a future Olympian? I asked Hayes.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“She’s just trying to figure out what she wants to do in her life, and over the next few years I’m sure it’s going to become more clear,” Hayes said.

Then, he added, “If she wants to be (an Olympian), she will be.”

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.