Olympic trials can't match his life Hostage, refugee, immigrant, American. Trials no match for former Sudan refugee

Posted: July 06, 2008

EUGENE, Ore. — It's not likely the pressure of today's concluding event at the U.S. Olympic track-and-field trials, the men's 1,500-meter final, will get to Lopez Lomong.

He has, after all, visited his own grave.

Seventeen years ago, when Lomong was 6, Sudanese rebels snatched him from a church. His parents presumed their second son was dead until they were reunited in December.

Then, together, they visited the Catholic cemetery in their village of Kimotong.

"They'd made a funeral for me," Lomong said. "They had this pile of stones and things like that. They'd buried some of my childhood stuff. Symbols. A necklace. Other things from me."

Happily, they disassembled the pile and dug up the artifacts.

The 23-year-old runner, who missed qualifying in the 800 meters Monday night when he was passed and tripped near the finish, will try again today at the longer distance and against such formidable rivals as Alan Webb and 5,000-meter winner Bernard Lagat.

That might be an intimidating scenario for someone else. But no matter how that race transpires, it will never match the twists and turns of Lomong's life.

"This right here," he said of his experience at these trials, "is a dream."

The 1,500 final will take place exactly one year after Lomong became an American citizen. Now he hopes to use the event as a stepping-stone to his ultimate goal - a gold medal that would allow him to repay all of those who made his story so different from those of millions of other Sudanese children.

"I'm just like any American now, with my rights," he said. "I can compete for the country I want to compete for. Now, I'm not like one of the Lost Boys [the Sudanese youngsters who were displaced and often orphaned]. I'm an American."

Lomong was in church praying that morning in 1991 when the soldiers rushed in and his nightmare began.

"They wanted all the kids to go out with them," he recalled. "They grabbed me from my family. They put us in a truck, about 50 of us, and we just drove. We didn't know where we were going."

They were going to the soldiers' camp where in time the youngsters, like so many other Lost Boys of Sudan, would be transformed into the child soldiers who were so prevalent in Sudan's brutal civil war.

Lomong was luckier than most. Three older boys befriended him. Less than a month after his arrival, they escaped.

"We cut a hole in the fence, and we kept running and running," Lomong said. "We didn't know where we were going, but my friends kept telling me I was going to see my mom. I was excited. They were only 14 or 15 years old, but they carried me on their backs."

Soon they were stopped by police. They'd inadvertently wandered into northwest Kenya. The police deposited the boys in a refugee camp, where Lomong would spend the next 10 years.

There was only one guaranteed meal a day there, United Nations-supplied corn. But occasionally there were opportunities to earn money. In 2000, after helping to "move some dirt," Lomong was paid 5 shillings. Instead of spending it on food, he felt compelled to save it.

The decision turned his life around.

"People at the camp told me they were going to see the Olympics" on television, he said. "I didn't even know what that was. I had to walk five miles and pay 5 shillings to watch on a black-and-white television."

He saw Michael Johnson win the 400 meters at Sydney.

"He ran so fast," Lomong said. "I said, that's what I want to do."

When Lomong was 16, a Catholic Charities official came to the refugee camp and said there were opportunities for 3,500 of the Lost Boys there to come to the United States.

"The U.S. was next to heaven," Lomong said.

He wrote the story of his life and sent it to the American embassy in Kenya. The officials were moved. They interviewed the teenager, and soon Lomong was placed with an American family in the central New York town of Otisco Lake.

He went to Tully High School and developed into a cross-country and track star.

"In my country, soccer players are athletes," he said. "But runners? Everybody runs. You want to go to a neighbor's house, you run. You want to go to school, you run."

He ran 25 miles a week then. By the time he got to Northern Arizona University, the first person in his family ever to attend college, he was running as many as 80 a week.

After a slow start at the school in high-altitude Flagstaff, Lomong found his legs. In 2007, a month before he became a citizen, he won the 1,500 meters at the NCAA championships.

Around that time, his birth parents were located. His mother was living in Nairobi, and his father was in Sudan, where the political situation had calmed enough to allow him to resume farming. Television network HBO arranged a reunion, which was featured this year on its monthly sports anthology, Real Sports.

"A lot of people here don't know what was going on in Sudan," he said. "All I worry about is the kids who are dying, especially in Darfur. They don't have the dream that they could be athletes or Olympians or doctors. . . . They're just trying to stay alive."

Lomong was disappointed by his close call in the 800 here, but not discouraged about his 1,500 hopes.

"I finished my 800, and I felt very fresh," he said. "I just wanted to do some rounds. I finally made my PR [personal record, 1 minute, 45.58 seconds]. I didn't make the team, but I wanted to see what my speed was. It really helped me a lot."

As he spoke with reporters in a Hilton hotel ballroom, his diamond earrings twinkled in the camera lights.

How much did those set him back?

"Much more than 5 shillings," he said.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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