COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Lopez Lomong loves challenges. That love for challenges helped him overcome a vicious civil war in his birth country of South Sudan.
As a six-year-old boy Lomong was attending church with his family. A group of rebel forces invaded his church and took Lomong and other boys to be drafted into the militia. A few weeks later, Lomong was pulled from his bed one night by a few other kidnapped boys and began his long journey to becoming an American citizen.
After three days and nights of travel the boys were arrested in Kenya. Lomong spent 10 years living in a refugee camp, eating one meal a day, before being adopted by an American family in New York.
Lomong says he gained inspiration as a young boy through watching the Olympic Games.
“So I dream that I want to be running for the United States because I was so inspired by Michael [Johnson]. The jersey that he was wearing on his chest and the people who were cheering for him, the flag, I didn’t know exactly the colors in this flag that was waving because it was black and white. To see that was incredible. But it’s more than that.
“When Michael stood on the podium and national anthem went on and then he cried. I realized, ‘why did he cry?’ He just ran very fast, beat everybody else. Why did he cry? So, I realize that he did not just run for himself. He ran for something bigger than himself, which is the country.”
During the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Lomong realized his dream to run for the United States on the greatest stage in sports. Lomong made it to the semi-finals of the 1500-meters during the Games. Another highlight of those Games was when he was selected by his U.S. teammates as Opening Ceremony flag bearer for the United States.
“It’s the American dream. It tells who we really are, as a country, as Americans. Because I never won any medals or I’m not famous or anything, but the story is what makes us who we are... That’s why they chose me to be a flag bearer because my story is what America’s story is all about. They don’t see how many credentials or medals you’ve won or how famous you are. It’s a land of everybody, a land of opportunity to be able to tell our lives, our backgrounds, the obstacles we went through and things like that.”
Lomong also competed in the London 2012 Olympic Games. This time he ran the 5000-meter, and finished 10th in the final.
“The reason why I decided to do the 5000 is that during our Olympic trials there was only an hour between 1500-meters first round and the 5000 final,” Lomong said. “So I talked to my coaches and all my mentors and said ‘why don’t we just put all the eggs in one basket and go for 5000-meters to make this team.’”
Lomong recently released his memoirs, Running for My Life, to tell his story and raise money for his charity’s project with World Vision, 4 South Sudan.
“It's a new country [South Sudan], it's a country with no legs and now this, 4 South Sudan, Lopez Lomong Foundation is the hope to give those people the opportunity and have the legs to be able to run, to save them and make them feel like they matter. So they can reach for the highest skies.”
“We're trying to empower young athletes and young people to come back and rebuild the country from bottom up. And so that's what we're doing right now, and trying to get Christians and Muslims working together and building the vocational training centers and the schools and just rebuilding the community and also forgiving each other from what happened,” Lomong said of the goals of his book.
“So I hope one day we’ll be able to get a journalist from South Sudan as well, to interview people and just leaders who’ll be able to get that country up on their feet and running. That’s what Running for my Life came in, to empower people and educate people. I got my own degree; I want many more people to get degrees.”
Among Lomong’s professional goals is to finish his journey toward the American dream.
“One more thing that I need to be able to give to this country, and that’s a medal and the second thing that I need to be able to get from this country and bring back to empower other athletes and empower other people who never had the opportunity. So I never made my American dream yet, I’m still pushing,” Lomong said.
Lomong hopes to inspire younger athletes to reach for their dreams.
“They can be able to take something bigger with them and be able to teach other, their own colleagues in their countries and things like that. So running is a small thing, but being able to give back is a bigger thing.”
Lomong says he has gained a lot from his Olympic experiences.
“It’s just [to] unite us also. To see that every time we see on television United States winning a medal we are all celebrating together. The national anthem will be sang on TV we’re all standing, putting our hands on our hearts and all sing the national anthem together. It’s amazing,” Lomong recalls, thinking back on one of his most memorable experience in London, being surrounded by fellow Americans at the P&G Family Home.
Lomong plans to compete at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. After all, he is still on a quest to bring a medal to the country that has helped him strive for his dreams.
“Basically, right after the [London 5000-meter] final I came back and sit down with my coach and say, “the next chapter is going to be in Rio”.
As for what which distance Lomong will run, “We’ll just see. I’m going to have fun, go out there and enjoy the gift that God give me and I just want to multiply and be able to empower other people and make good use of it and empower young athlete as well.”
Qualifying for the 2016 Games will be challenging for Lomong, who will be 31 in four years time.
Still, Lomong is always ready for a new challenge.