Editor’s note: The Associated Press first interviewed Lopez Lomong in the spring of 2007, a week before he won the NCAA 1,500 meters. The result was the first detailed story of the kidnapping from his family, his escape from Sudanese rebels at age 6 and his decade in a refugee camp. The reporter returned to Flagstaff this year to hear Lomong reflect on all that has happened in the last three years.
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.
One of the six still is in high school. The other five either have graduated from or are attending college.
“They are amazing, amazing parents,” Lomong said. “Six refugee kids and they just took them in. They are always there for us. They always want us to do well, academically, athletically, anything that we do.”
All but Lomong are gathering in the Florida Keys over Christmas. He says he hopes to make it if his busy schedule allows.
“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 7,000 feet. 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.
The whirlwind of his life the past three years stands in stark contrast to that decade in the Kenyan camp.
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.
As they drove, “all these kids” mobbed the SUV.
“Two of them happened to be my brothers, which I never knew about,” Lomong said. “Alex and Peter.”
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. On his first trip back, he received the ultimate welcome.
“I don’t want to say this because I didn’t want to see it,” Lomong said. “They brought three bulls to sacrifice. That’s a big deal. They had three bulls, big ones. They say they are going to celebrate my coming home. They organized the whole thing, the elders, and they blessed me and kind of prayed for me.”
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.”
A devout Christian, Lomong said he has forgiven the Muslim rebels who kidnapped him.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we just kind of swallow and say you are my brother.”
On one of his trips to his village, he said, he brought some young Muslims to his father’s hut.
“You know what? People do fight,” he said, “but at the end of the day they come back to eat at the same table.”
He is using his Facebook site to raise money to build a “conciliation church” in the village where Muslims and Christians can worship. It would be built right next to the spot of his kidnapping.
He envisions classes at the center to teach vocational skills to the young people.
“My parents are OK there. I can send some money,” Lomong said, “but what of the other ones? I want to be able to build and empower women and empower kids.”
He even talks of organizing a walk to Darfur, where his mix of Christian and Muslim friends could build a mosque in the name of friendship and peace.
“I know there are a lot of kids out there who went through what I went through,” Lomong said. “Sometime maybe they are separated from their family and sometimes their families have been killed. Especially babies. I have witnessed women being killed and the baby still sucking on her breast.”
His plans sound like a pipe dream, too much for one man to accomplish in a land so torn by hatred and violence. Then again, this is no ordinary young man.
“Maybe because I still have my parents there, but I still see myself going there to be able to help as much as I can,” he said. “I need to roll up my sleeves and say I need to make a difference.”
Even, he said, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, if it’s “that little difference.”