Olympics behind him, Lomong still dreaming big

Updated: January 6, 2009, 3:46 PM ET
Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Watching a young Sudanese girl arrive at her new school this fall, Lopez Lomong felt the same kind of pride he did when he led the U.S. team into the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics.

Running saved him when his native country was being ripped apart by civil war. Educating the next generation of Sudan will help ensure it never happens again.

"A long time ago, when I was there, we didn't have schools," Lomong said. "And to be able to see that young girl coming into school in the morning, it's just my dream come true."

The runner has many more dreams -- for both his countries.

After opening a primary school during a trip to Sudan after the Olympics, only the second time the 24-year-old had returned since fleeing as a child, Lomong was scheduled to leave Tuesday for another visit. This time he will collect his two younger brothers, 12-year-old Peter and 11-year-old Alex, who are coming to the United States for school.

When he returns home, he will continue the training he hopes will someday bring world and Olympic medals for his adopted country.

"I'm hungry for more -- for more Olympics, to be able to go and bring the silverware back home," Lomong said Sunday. "It's a way of saying thanks to the country that took me in."

Lomong may not have won any medals in Beijing -- he didn't get past the semifinals in the 1,500 meters -- but he was one of the most inspiring and heartwarming stories of the games.

Abducted by Sudanese rebels when he was 6, he managed to escape and make his way with other boys to a refuge camp in Kenya, where he spent the next decade. Separated from his family, he raised himself, getting by on meager food rations and school lessons with even less substance.

He came to the United States in 2001 as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and soon emerged as one of the best young middle-distance runners in his new country. The 2007 NCAA champion in the 1,500 meters, he earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team with a third-place finish in that race on July 6 -- exactly one year after he became a U.S. citizen.

In August, the boy who was once lost found himself carrying the Stars and Stripes into the Bird's Nest, smiling widely as he posed for pictures with President George W. Bush.

"The whole thing just changes" your life, Lomong said. "I'm there, being able to do something that I love to do and being able to also represent my community back in New York, back in high school, at Northern Arizona and also my country, Sudan.

"Also, having my parents back in Africa watching me, following me."

Though Lomong is fiercely proud to be an American, he will always be Sudanese and his native land's continuing problems are never far from his heart. He is a member of Team Darfur, a coalition of athletes dedicated to ending the crisis in Sudan's war-torn western province that has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and displaced 2.7 million others.

The primary school he opened in his village of Kimotong will increase access to education, something sorely lacking in Sudan. Only 2,500 children in the country of more than 7 million people complete primary school each year, according to the New Sudan Education Initiative. Of that number, only 500 are girls.

"To be able to see a young girl showing up in the morning to go to school, that just opened my heart," Lomong said. "I'd like to be able to do more things and be able to get my people, my fellow Americans, to get involved."

And when Chicago Bulls forward and fellow Sudan native Luol Deng asked him to come to Chicago for the annual party he throws to celebrate the Lost Boys' birthdays, Lomong didn't hesitate.

He arrived well before the event began Sunday afternoon, grinning broadly and exchanging hugs as he met fellow Lost Boys. He sampled the buffet of traditional Sudanese food, and inched forward in his front-row seat to snap pictures when traditional dances were performed.

"When I heard about this, I said, 'I can't miss it. I missed last year, I have to be part of it and be able to share with everybody and share with Luol," Lomong said. "It's a great opportunity for me to be part of this, the Lost Boys of Sudan."

After all, it was his "birthday," too.

Though Lomong has learned his actual birthdate is Jan. 5, he still lists it as Jan. 1, the date given to all Lost Boys when they arrived in the United States without paperwork. Or parents.

"I'd rather take January 1st. That's where the great happiness is," Lomong said. "The opening of the whole new year and the fireworks, the ball dropping from Times Square, that's just awesome."

Despite his busy schedule, Lomong hasn't lost sight of what got him here. He has been doing altitude training in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Colorado Springs, Colo. When he returns from the Sudan, he will go to Austin, Texas, where his coach at Northern Arizona, John Hayes, is now an assistant with the Longhorns.

Lomong's results in Beijing may not have been impressive -- he finished last in his semifinal heat -- but the experience was invaluable. Because he's been a U.S. citizen for only 18 months, he'd run in just two international meets before Beijing.

"That's going to challenge me to be able to prepare myself fully before I show up at the starting line," he said. "I have to be very aware of what's going on when I'm racing. The whole of my training is a little different because I experienced it, I know how it is and how to prepare for it."

He has put more focus on endurance runs the last few months instead of the track workouts that were his staple last year. He plans to continue racing the 1,500 meters, and said he will likely add the 5,000 at some point. The 800 meters, which he ran at the Olympic trials last year, will probably be added to the mix again, too.

"I'm thinking 2012, 2016 and 2020," he said. "Those are my games right there."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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