By Katherine Keel | March 13, 2013, 12 p.m. (ET)
Lopez Lomong competes in the men's 800 meter semifinals during
the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track and Field at Hayward
Field on June 28, 2008, in Eugene, Ore.

A hand roughly shook his shoulder as he heard the panicked whispers from his friends, “Wake up, Lopepe, we have to go NOW!” Though his legs felt like lead, the soles of his feet were bloody and he could barely walk, he began shuffling forward as fast as he could.

After running for two days straight, Lopez Lomong somehow mustered enough strength to keep moving. A 6-year-old is not meant to run for 72 hours straight, but Lomong had no choice.

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Lopez Lomong’s childhood was stolen from him at an early age, his innocence shattered and his eyes opened to unimaginable horrors in a matter of seconds. Held at gunpoint and torn from his mother’s arms, Lomong was kidnapped intentionally to be trained as a child soldier. His home country of  Sudan was in the midst of a civil war and on that fateful Sunday morning in church, Lomong was suddenly forced into the battle.

Held captive for weeks in a rebel prison camp, Lomong watched as other children died beside him, their bodies and spirits too weak to carry on. Rebel soldiers cast Lomong aside to die, labeling him "inadequate," as he was too small to carry an AK-47 and therefore, little help in combat.

It soon became clear that he would die in the camp if he didn’t escape. Alongside three other boys – his “angels,” as he calls them – Lomong began running one night and never looked back. Despite sheer exhaustion and dehydration, the boys continued their journey across the savannah, knowing this was the only way to freedom.

The boys continued running until they reached Kenya, where Lomong then spent the next 10 years living in a refugee camp amongst other “Lost Boys.” Once there, Lomong attended church every Sunday, which allowed him to escape the hardships of camp life and served as a gateway to the outside world. Ten years after being kidnapped, his faith delivered a life-changing opportunity.

Through Catholic Charities, roughly 3,500 “Lost Boys” would have a chance start a new life in America by living with a foster family. To apply, each candidate was required to write an essay in English, documenting their hardships and struggles in life to this point.

Though he hardly knew any English, Lomong jumped at the opportunity and wrote a heartfelt essay.

Relying on his friends’ support as well as his own knowledge, Lomong transcribed his essay into English, unsure of what each word meant but trusting in his friends that his story was correctly written.

After years of wishing, hoping and praying he would find a way out of the refugee camp, Lomong’s dream came true. He was selected as one of the lucky few to go to America.

“Finally being able to go to America was an incredible, crazy dream. I kept pinching myself to make sure it was all really happening,” Lomong said.

Runner Lopez Lomong carries his country's flag during
the Opening Ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympic
Games on Aug. 8, 2008.

Life in the United States marked the start of a new adventure and Lomong chased down every opportunity available. Twelve years later, he has defeated all odds and is the epitome of a rags-to-riches story.

Lomong gained U.S. citizenship in 2007 and became a Nike-sponsored professional athlete that same year. Shortly after, he qualified for his first U.S. Olympic Team in 2008 and his teammates elected him to be the flag bearer during the Opening Ceremony in Beijing. A few years later, Lomong started a non-profit organization, 4 South Sudan, to provide aid for his home country. In December 2011, he reached yet another milestone by graduating from Northern Arizona University with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. The following summer, Lomong qualified for his second U.S. Olympic Team and ran the 5,000-meter race in London.

“I came from nothing…my background was rough and fractured," Lomong said. "I didn’t have a normal childhood. But, I had the opportunity, in this great nation, both to compete and carry the flag for this country. It was such an honor to be selected by my teammates to be the flag bearer in 2008. That’s when I began thinking of starting an organization to help South Sudan.”

4 South Sudan aims to provide support and resources to individuals and families living in rural villages similar to the one in which Lomong was born. Following the civil war that tore his family apart and changed his life forever, South Sudan finally gained independence in 2011, making it the newest country.

In an effort to ensure no child has to experience what he went through, Lomong founded the organization centered around four main ideals: clean water, education, health care and nutrition. Partnered with philanthropic giant World Vision, 4 South Sudan has vaulted to the forefront of Americans’ minds as Lomong continues his success as a runner. Building off his Olympic experience, Lomong continues to use his running accomplishments as a platform through which to speak about the issues in South Sudan. 

“I run because it helps me to visualize where I came from – surrounded by darkness, filled with fear," he said. "I know that I’ve created something positive out of my experiences. The countless hours, the sweat, the pain – it’s all going toward something, because now I have the leverage and visibility to change South Sudan for the better."

In the simplest of terms, 4 South Sudan aims to deliver the tools and resources needed on a basic level to fix larger problems in South-Sudanese society.  

“At this point, we’re trying to empower athletes and people alike to come back to South Sudan and help build it together from bottom up,” Lomong said. “Geographically, South Sudan is a hotbed for two religions – Islam in the north and Christianity in the south – so the idea is to get Christians and Muslims collaborating in an effort to rebuild the community. Hopefully, this will help to bridge the two groups’ differences and forgive each other from what happened in the past.”

 
Lopez Lomong competes in the 1,500-meter final during the USA
Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field on
June 28, 2009 in Eugene, Ore.

Lomong stressed that clean water is perhaps the most important facet to solving the problems in South Sudan. According to the CIA World Factbook, some women and children walk over five miles a day for clean water, which is often contaminated and causes a wide variety of health problems. Lomong believes bringing clean water to these areas will greatly benefit the villages and will reduce the risk of crime for both women and children alike.

A close second to water, education is crucial to South Sudan’s success. According to statistics, only 27% of the population is literate, and of that, only 16% of women. By providing schools, teachers and the proper resources to learn, South Sudan can begin to change the face of its country. With over half of the population below the age of 18, education has the potential to shape the youth and permanently alter the lives of those in South Sudan for the better.

In addition, access to basic health care can save millions of lives. Each year, many South Sudanese people die from preventable diseases and minor ailments that could be remedied with even the simplest medical care. According to statistics, a mere 17% of the population has received the recommended vaccines by the World Health Organization (WHO). By expanding this number, Lomong aims to eradicate common diseases and help stabilize the general health of those living in South Sudan.

Lastly, nutrition plays a key role in South Sudan’s success and, as an Olympic athlete, Lomong knows first-hand how a change in diet can affect health, both physically and mentally. His hope is to bring nutritional awareness to individuals, families and villages alike in order to aid in each person’s general well-being.

“Anyone can get involved," Lomong explained. "Whether it’s physically, financially or emotionally, 4 South Sudan welcomes everyone to help out wherever they find his or her calling. Something so simple as even helping to spread awareness of the organization can go a long way. When people ask me where I see the foundation in a few years, I respond that the possibilities are open-ended and, truly, the sky’s the limit.”

To learn more about 4 South Sudan, visit the website here.

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