Lomong Takes Each Race in Stride

Flagstaff, AZ – Trying to go for a run with Lopez Lomong is like attempting to run alongside a sports car. He has a tremendous kick. That means in the final hundred meters of a race he's able to shift into a higher gear.

COACH HAYES/LOMONG: How you feelin' today, Lopez? Feelin' good. Feeling good? Yeah.

At a recent track practice Lomong and his teammates run laps. The N-A-U motto is: practice hard race easily.

AMBY: Running, heavy breathing.

Lopez hardly makes a sound as his long legs appear to glide over the track. He's built for speed and endurance, taller and broader than most distance runners with a bald aerodynamic head and lean muscles. His dark eyes are fierce, intent on the goal - to win.

COACH HAYES: Relax the hands and face. Relax the hands and face.

Distance Coach John Hayes says Lomong has been able to increase his endurance over the last two years running at high altitude. At the beginning of the season he ran 80 miles a week to get in shape. Hayes believes Lomong's past makes him a determined athlete.

HAYES: I'm sure it increases his ability to tolerate pain. And his mental toughness from what he's been through kind of makes him hard headed. That presents its challenges for me but it also makes him the athlete that he is. He doesn't want to settle for second in anything.

And he hasn't. The three-time All American is the reigning N-C-double-A 3-thousand meter champion. He's broken four school records.

Associate editor of Track and Field News Jon Hendershott has been following Lomong since he first saw him compete last year.

HENDERSHOTT: The very fact of just seeing him finish the way he does is just very impressive It's one of those things where you thought that wasn't just a one time thing. Keep your eye on that guy.

Lomong was six-years-old when he fled a prison camp in Sudan. He and two older boys ran for three days until they reached the Sudan-Kenya border.

LOMONG: They were like 14, 15. They were just dragging me along cuz two of them were holding my hands while they were running with bare feet. And I was just like trying to keep up.

He says he remembers the older boys carrying him on their backs when he was too tired to run. Thousands of other Sudanese boys tried to flee but many of them were attacked by wild animals or were shot by the Janjaweed militia. Those that survived became known as the "lost boys of Sudan."

Lomong and his friends found a refugee camp in Kenya. There he lived for 10 years separated from his parents and five siblings.

Then in 2001 Rob and Barbara Rogers gave Lomong a home in Tully, New York. The couple had heard about the lost boys in their church bulletin.

ROB ROGERS: I said to Barb I said, 'jeez this sounds interesting maybe we should think about doing that.' And she said, 'you're out of your mind.'

But after learning more about Sudan Barbara says she got hooked. Today they have six Sudanese foster children. They say Lopez was their guinea pig.

Lomong's first day in the U-S was filled with firsts -- first meal at a restaurant, first car ride. Months later the Rogers learned just how overwhelming that day was.

ROGERS: He was just nodding his head and smiling. He figured he was there by mistake. There was no way he belonged there. And that we didn't know. He was trying to be really good because he thought he'd get in a lot of trouble when they'd find out he was there.

LOMONG: It was like heaven you know because there's life you know. Instead of being in a camp everywhere is just dark and you know. There's no opportunity or there's no life around.

Lomong had played soccer in Kenya with other refugees. And he wanted to try out for the team at his new school in New York. But when the Tully High School track coach saw him run, he encouraged Lomong to compete with their team.

AMBY: Track practice running

At NAU Coach Hayes says he's seen other athletes make it to this point only to be sidetracked. But he thinks Lomong really has a chance.

HAYES: I don't see a limit in what he could accomplish, whether it be standing on the medal stand someday in the Olympics or just winning NCAA titles. It just depends on a lot of the moves he's going to end up making over the next few years.

Lomong doesn't see limits either. He says he would like to represent the U-S at the Olympics to say thank you to the country that gave him so many breaks.

LOMONG: I say everything I do is a gift and if my life could have ended then I could not be able to have this opportunity.

Lomong has a big summer. After competing in the N-C-double-A Championships he'll take his citizenship test. He then hopes to be able to visit his Sudanese family in east Africa and eventually bring them to the U-S. He's majoring in hotel management in the hopes of one day running a hotel in Africa.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.