Lopez Lomong’s long road to diploma started in Sudan

Posted: December 14, 2011 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Education

By Mike Lopresti, Gannett

What can graduation mean to a college athlete? Let’s not ask the star who stops by briefly on the way to the NBA or the head case who bad-acts his way off campus or the occasional class attendee who drops out two hours after his final game. Let’s ask the distance runner from Northern Arizona University who had to flee for his life in Africa as a kid and eat meals in the street.

  • Lopez Lomong, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Games, will graduate from Northern Arizona on Friday and hopes to compete in London. His road from Sudan has been a long and winding one.

Lopez Lomong, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Games, will graduate from Northern Arizona on Friday and hopes to compete in London. His road from Sudan has been a long and winding one.

“This is a moment that comes once in a lifetime,” Lopez Lomong said over the phone about graduation day this Friday. “I stick to it. I cannot drop this baton, and I’m going all the way to the finish line.”

Lopez Lomong? The name might ring a bell.

He is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. First came his abduction from Mass one Sunday morning at the age of 6, by rebels who wanted to make him a child soldier in their civil war. Then his escape, as he outran men who wanted to kill him. Then 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, while his family, assuming him dead, held a ceremonial burial.

Then better days. His resettlement in the USA with a foster family in New York. His U.S. citizenship. His 2008 Olympic berth. And guess who carried the U.S. flag at the opening ceremony in Beijing? That’s the last time many of us saw him.

Three years later, he carries a standard still. The Northern Arizona faculty chose him to bear the flag and lead in the 250 College of Business and School of Hotel and Restaurant Management graduates at commencement.

What will he think come Friday, if he pauses to turn and look at the long road behind him?

“Not in a million years” would he have dreamed of this day, he said. “Living by myself at 6 years old, I never saw my childhood. I never had a book being read to me; I never had any Christmas. Basically, from 6 years old, I started living as an adult. When I was 14, I didn’t know there was a life for me. I was a kid eating from the garbage.”

Then he saw Michael Johnson win a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics on a small black-and-white TV and dreamed of another world. A year later, he was in New York, with his first backpack, his first pencil and more than one shirt to his name.

“I became a child again,” he said.

Now he’ll be a college graduate. It took one last semester from hell. He carried a load of 22 hours, knowing he needed to finish before the real work for London clicks in. He hopes to compete in the 1,500 meters. Not much downtime for this senior, but what’s that compared to getting chased by men with guns?

Lomong would be up at 6:30 in the morning, with 10 or 11 miles of running. Then he’d study enough to get a 3.5 grade-point average.

He was involved in clubs — vice president of one — because he never had anything like college life back in the refugee camp, so he was going to take advantage of everything.

Someone even got him playing golf, as if he hasn’t suffered enough. A bad slice and lost balls followed. “Maybe I will stick to running,” he said.

He has brought two brothers to America and settled them in school in Virginia. He has started a foundation to help promote unity in South Sudan. He has spoken to whatever school his sponsor, Nike, would send him to, spreading the word to American students on what a good deal they have.

“I want to tell the kids that in this country you can go to sleep and you know you’re going to wake up happy.” Or at least not kidnapped by rebels.

And he has dreamed of London, particularly the medal he missed in 2008. “The goal is to run straight, then left turn as fast as anybody else, and win the gold medal for this great country.”

But first, graduation, and he’s telling everybody it can be seen online. “There’ll be lots of tears of joy,” said the man who was once lost and has since been found. “I did it. I did it.”

Contributing: Mike Lopresti also writes for Gannett


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