Lopez Lomong has been running since he was 6 years old.
In 2008, he ran with the American flag in the Beijing Olympics. In April, he set a 2012 world-best time in the men’s 5,000 meters. Earlier this month, he ran in the Prefontaine Classic here in Eugene, finishing fifteenth in the Bowerman Mile, with a time of 3:55.14. But when he began running at the age of 6, it was not for competition or joy — he was escaping from a rebel militant group in South Sudan that had kidnapped him.
“We didn’t have much, but we always had food and dancing and singing,” Lomong recalls of his childhood. “One morning when we went to church, a troop of soldiers came in and ordered everyone to lay down.”
He says that in Sudan everybody lived a mile or two away from each other, and church was a guaranteed place to find a large group of children together.
“They took all the kids, including myself, into a truck that was covered with canvas so we couldn’t see where we were going,” he says. “We drove blindfolded for three or four hours, and when we got there, there were only boys. We didn’t know what happened to the girls.”
Conditions at the camp were terrible.
“The grain they gave us to eat was mixed 50 percent with sand,” he says. “If you ate it all together, your stomach wouldn’t digest it, and you would die. When you’re hungry, you eat everything you can. Children were dying every day.”
The rebel soldiers who kidnapped Lomong wanted to turn him into a child soldier.
“An AK-47 became my toy,” he says. “It’s harder to train 18- to 20-year-olds. It’s easier to train young kids and brainwash them.”
In the camp, he had three friends who also were taken from his village. After noticing a hole in the fence, they woke him up in the middle of the night and told him he was going to see his family again.
“We ran for three days and three nights,” Lomong says. “And we thought we were going to our village, but we ended up in Kenya, which turned out to be our home for a decade.”
He and his friends arrived at the refugee camp in Kenya funded by the United Nations. The U.N. issued Lomong a tarp, cooking oil, salt, sugar, as well as flour and advised him to go find other kids to live with. He found a group of kids, and they all consolidated their food to eat one meal a day.
“Tuesday was the garbage day from the U.N. compound,” he says. “They would bring the garbage into the refugee camp to be burned. But we ate the garbage. The spoiled food from the compound was our delicacy. They never had to burn the garbage.”
Lomong lived in the camp for ten years. In 2000, a U.S. government program offered refugee status for those dubbed “The Lost Boys of Sudan” and provided him with a way out of the refugee camp.
“We always had optimism that God would hear our cries,” he says. “One day, people at the church in the refugee camp told us ‘If you guys want to go to America, write your life story and maybe you’ll go to America.’ I came back and wrote my life story in Swahili and brought it back to church, which had become the post office of the camp. They collected and mailed them because we didn’t have money to send it to the American embassy.”
Lomong was interviewed and selected to come to America. He flew to Syracuse, N.Y., and was adopted by an American family.
“I kept pinching myself to wake up,” he says. “Being rich in Africa means you have your own soccer ball and bike. My parents had three cars, a bike, a basketball and a soccer ball. I didn’t think I was going to stay there long. I’d thought I’d have to go back to work, but they gave me my childhood back. They loved me unconditionally like their own kid. I was just so thankful to be able to call someone mom and dad that would take care of me.”
He started high school and says learning English and the culture was very difficult. He also began running cross country.
“Running is part of life in Africa,” he says. “If you want to get somewhere faster, you have to run — that is part of life. There are no cars.
“In cross-country, I got to learn English and make friends. I couldn’t speak Swahili when others were speaking English. I learned to communicate, but it was very hard; English is really hard to learn. I learned about community and taking care of your friends — it reminded me of how you take care of your friends in the camp.”
After high school, Lomong ran track and cross country on full scholarship at Northern Arizona University. He won two national titles and got the attention of Nike. During this time, he also learned his biological mother was still alive.
“I got reconnected with my family from a phone call in 2003,” he says. “My mom was looking for me in the refugee camp and heard about me coming to America. I signed with Nike to go professional to help my family as much as I can.”
Four years later in 2007, HBO sponsored him to go see his family for the first time since he was 6 years old.
“We had a great celebration, and I brought my younger brothers over here,” he says.
Lomong came back and then ran in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“That was my biggest dream — to run for this country,” he says. “I was given the opportunity to be the flag bearer; it was so incredible to have that opportunity to meet the president. For those kids who never had the opportunity for anything, who didn’t have a country to run for, when I carried the American flag, it was like my dream had come true.
“It was amazing to have the people who supported me, who didn’t see me as a refugee kid but as a fellow American. It was a chance to say thank you to this country.”
Since then, Lomong has started the Lopez Lomong Foundation, which partnered with World Vision to establish 4 South Sudan, The partnership aims to “meet the needs of South Sudanese people through water, healthcare, education, and nutrition.” The foundation has already raised $100,000 for clean water and started drilling wells; the next target on his agenda is education.
“Every time I go to Africa, very horrible things are happening,” he says. “Children and girls are not going to school. It’s hard to fathom how other people are being denied education. I’m learning how to help South Sudan, newest country on earth.”
As for the present, he is back in Eugene right now for the Olympic Trials — “And then to England to run for the gold medal for the U.S.,” Lomong says. “Because I owe this country so much.” Lomong took first in his heat in the men’s 5,000 meters and is slated to run the final on Thursday evening.