FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — No one should be surprised that a movie is being made about Lopez Lomong’s life. There is edge-of-your-seat drama, the horror of evil, the goodness of humanity. It is a lesson in how perseverance and a positive attitude, no matter what, can be rewarded with joy.
“It’s great, it’s amazing,” Lomong said of the project. “Again, why me? I am just so blessed.”
Yet the telling is bound to be incomplete. He is just 25 and there is so much more he wants to do — for his village in Sudan, for the family he thought he never would find, for the United States, the adopted homeland he cherishes.
Not to mention his goals on the track, where he is the two-time defending U.S. champion at 1,500 meters with his best years yet to come. He is working with former University of Wisconsin distance running coach Jerry Schumacher as part of the Oregon Project, founded by Alberto Salazar to improve what has been a dismal recent history of middle-distance running in the U.S.
Ever polite, ever smiling, Lomong talks excitedly of the 2012 London Olympics.
“I want to speak to anybody, answer anybody’s questions,” he said, “because we are here for joy with peace and we all represent one country, the United States. I will never be any happier than if we all line up in the final in the Olympic Games and go 1-2-3, even if I finish third. Hey, we are a team.”
For those who don’t know his often-told story, Lomong was 6 years old when rebels kidnapped him from the arms of his mother at a church service beneath a tree in his village. He escaped from the rebel camp with three older boys who took him with them, running for three days before being taken by Kenyan border patrol troops to a refugee camp.
He stayed there for 10 years, 14 children to a hut living on a sack of corn a month and, on Easter and Christmas, a chicken. At 16, he was told by an American about the Lost Boys of Sudan program. He could write an essay about his life and, if it was good enough, would go to live with a family in the United States.
It was good enough, and suddenly this boy who spent a decade as an orphan in a refugee camp hut was living at the lakeside home of Robert and Barbara Rodgers near Tully, N.Y., the first of six Lost Boys the family took in.
“He knows how much support he has, not only in his family here, but all over the world,” Barbara Rodgers said, “and I think he feels a responsibility to live a good, responsible life. . . . We’re really, really proud of him.”
Lomong’s first great success on the track came in 2007, when he won the NCAA 1,500-meter championship for Northern Arizona University. In July of that year, he became a U.S. citizen.
He is back at Northern Arizona, working toward a degree in hotel and restaurant management, running the familiar trails that wind through the pines at an elevation of 2,130 meters. He had been gone three years, living in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is a professional now, under contract to Nike.
Lomong is mastering the art of U.S. capitalism, with speaking appearances available through the All American Celebrity and Talent Network. His message to U.S. young people: never take what you have for granted. Visa is also a sponsor, then there’s the movie planned by New Line Cinema, to be released in 2012 before the London Olympics.
Lomong made the 2008 Olympic team with a surprise third-place finish at the trials, then was chosen by his teammates to carry the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony in Beijing.
“It was like, ‘Wow.’ Me, the kid who never had a country,” Lomong said. “Now I have a great country and people supported me, shouting ‘USA’ and I’m leading the delegation.”
Then-President George W. Bush spoke to the team in the holding room just before they walked into the glimmering, 90,000-seat Bird’s Nest stadium.
“He shook my hand and was so happy,” Lomong recalled. “He gave a little bit of speech about me, my story. And he said ‘Hold on to this flag. Don’t let it touch down.’ “
In 2003, Lomong received a phone call from a woman who said she was his mother.
She had been in Kenya at the refugee camp, looking for him.
“It’s kind of weird,” Lomong said. “My friends were going to play soccer and they lost the game. They were walking from the soccer fields to go to the tent. They said ‘Man, I wish Lopez would be here. We would not lose this game.’ “
She heard his name, Lomong said, “and started saying, ‘Where is he? I’m his mom.’ “
Four years after they began talking regularly on the phone, they finally saw each other in person.
In July 2007, HBO Sports took him to Africa for the reunion.
His mother, Rita, was overwhelmed.
“She just started dancing and was so happy,” he said. “It was very emotional.”
Lomong has returned to his village several times. It is peaceful now, unlike the turmoil in the Darfur region to the west. He saw the symbolic grave where the family had buried his meager belongings, believing he was surely dead.
He watched his father, Awei, work the often-arid fields with his bare hands. His father, Lomong said, “thought maybe I was already dead and to see me it was like a prodigal son.”
Lomong has brought his younger brothers to the United States. Alex and Peter, now 14 and 13, attend a military school in Virginia “and they’re doing fantastic,” Lomong said.
“I don’t want my brothers to go through what I went through,” he said, “because you never know about what’s going on in Africa.”
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