Lopez Lomong and his big, global dreams

By Alan Abrahamson | May 31, 2012, 8:30 a.m. (ET)
Lopez Lomong
President George W. Bush greets Lomong, runner and flag-bearer for the United States, on the opening day of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

What Lopez Lomong does when he runs is fantastic stuff.

But that, of course, is just the start of all there is to tell when the telling revolves around Lopez Lomong.

"I am a voice for people who never told their story," he says. "I have to tell their stories."

When most Americans checked in on track and field four years ago, Lomong was the flag-bearer for the U.S. team marching into the Opening Ceremony at the Summer Games in Beijing.

 Lopez Lomong
From top: Lomong and Morreale at her Air Force Academy graduation; Morreale and Lomong atop the Incline -- once a railway, now a trail workout for novices and Olympic-caliber athletes alike -- near Manitou Springs, Colo.; a 'tukul' is a traditional east African hut made of mud and reeds -- this is the Lomong tukul where Lopez was born and spent the first six years of his life, in Kimotong, in the nation now known as South Sudan; the only working pump in Kimotong (Photos courtesy Brittany Morreale)

He was one of the "lost boys" of Sudan, born in southern Sudan, forced to flee when he was just 6-years-old to avoid an attack by the militia group known as the Janjaweed. He and his family ran for three days until they crossed into Kenya. After being separated from his family, he lived in a refugee camp run by Catholic missionaries for 10 years. An essay he wrote in 2001 about what he would try to do in the United States got him that chance; he was placed with a foster family in upstate New York. He went on to run in high school and college, became a naturalized U.S. citizen and made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in the 1500 meters.

In Beijing, he made it to the 1500 semifinals. He posed for pictures with President Bush.

Fast-forward to April 2012 and the Peyton Jordan meet at Stanford. Now the 27-year-old Lomong is every bit the professional track athlete. Now he is training in Portland, running 80 to 85 miles per week under the direction of Oregon Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher.

This night, Lomong, running the 5000 meters, not only unleashes a powerful kick but blows away the field. He crosses the finish line and stops, an easy winner.

Just one problem.

He has miscounted laps. He has one to go.

Oh.

He fires up the jets and takes off again.

This is a supremely difficult trick. But Lomong manages it, anyway. And wins the race again. Twice, as it were -- and, as it turns out, in what was then a world-leading time, 13:11.63.

"My body felt so good," Lomong said, laughing and adding, "We train so hard that racing is easy. Every time we have a race coming up in a couple weeks it's like I can't wait -- that's an easy day."

This weekend, Lomong will race the mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., against a world-class field. The mile isn't an Olympic event; maybe it should be, but that's a discussion for another day. The Pre is "another indicator" of where he is and what race or races he ought to aim for at the Trials.

As Lomong eases back into the spotlight, he paused this week to reflect for just a moment:

"I love the United States," he said. "This is the country that gives me a second chance. This is my gift, to give back to this country that has given me a second chance. I owe this country so much. I owe the fans. I love it so much. I wear the uniform with pride. I hold my head high and say, 'I am an American.'"

Assuming Lomong makes the U.S. Olympic team again, and if his Stanford kick is any indication you have to think he's a solid bet, he will be reunited in London with his longtime girlfriend, Brittany Morreale, 24, of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

She is a Rhodes Scholar now doing her work in Oxford as well as a first lieutenant in the Air Force.

They met when she was on the track and cross-country teams at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; he was in the area, where the U.S. Olympic maintains a center, training; half a season later, he asked her out while they were both recuperating from a hard workout in an ice bath. How's that for romance?

They have been an item now for four years.

At Oxford, Morreale is studying anthropology -- specifically, the role of traditional authority at the community level in South Sudan, which last July became an independent nation. "Originally it was inspired by Lopez," she said. "It has become really personal."

The day after the Closing Ceremony in London, the two of them will travel to the town where he was born and spent his first six years. It's called Kimotong, in a state called Eastern Equatoria. There, in concert with World Vision, the Christian relief agency, they intend to launch a long-term project -- it's dubbed "4 South Sudan" -- with, naturally, four areas of focus: clean water, health care, education and nutrition.

Through appearances at the Chicago and Los Angeles marathons, Lomong has helped raise just over $100,000 -- enough, they figure, to drill several boreholes and wells in Kimotong.

It's critical, he said, to find a well or wells to deliver water. Three years ago, his younger sister, Susan, just a teenager, was sexually assaulted as she was en route one day to find water. Lomong has written about the incident previously and when asked will talk about it, saying it has become a key motivator for him in trying to affect change not just in Kimotong but elsewhere in the developing world, where girls often find themselves vulnerable simply because they're trying to find water to drink or to use for cooking.

A village with water frees its girls from that fear and from the burden of walking hours to find it; when that burden is lifted, that opens up the possibility of going to school; with school comes endless possibilities.

In Susan's case, the assailant's identity remains unknown. Susan became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, whose name is Choper.

"I look at this," Lopez Lomong said, "and I am so blessed to be in America. I ran through all these obstacles to get to America. In my house, I have a faucet and clean water. I don't have to go to a river or a lake. And $50 will provide clean water for a family for life. That's incredible.

"I just want to be able to bring clean water so that girls like my sister don't have to walk all these miles and along the way they can overcome all those hardships. We want them to be able to go to school and continue in their lives and dream big. Be teachers and doctors and pilots and all the things people in the world dream about. All the things that were pushing me forward."

Alan Abrahamson is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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