Lost Boy Olympian Lopez Lomong Runs to Save Lives
Barb went, and signed them up.
On July 31, 2001, the empty nesters met Lomong at the Syracuse Hancock International Airport.
"I don't forget that date. My new family held a sign that read, 'Welcome Home Joseph,' the name given me when I was baptized," said Lomong. "They said to call them 'Mom and Dad.'
"They took me home. I had been living in a camp for 10 years. It was my first time in a car," Lomong recalls. "At their house, it was the first time in my own bed. I kept thinking, This is not where I belong. There's been a mistake."
He enrolled in Tully High School, where he ran for the cross-country team, coached by family friend Jim Paccia.
Lomong had discovered that running was more than just a way of transportation --- and dodging bullets—while in Kenya in 2000, where he and his friends watched on a small TV Michael Johnson run and win, then cry for joy, at the Sydney Olympics. Lomong said that was the spark that lit his dream to run for the United States.
Under Coach Paccia, Lomong earned three high-school state championships, then ran for Northern Arizona University, winning an NCAA championship in 2007, the year he became a U.S. citizen. He took time off from college to focus on training for the Olympics, placing 17th in Beijing in 2008.
With Nike and Visa as sponsors, Lomong now trains with Oregon Track Club/Portland.
And, feeling compelled to use his talents and his story to give back, he founded the 4 South Sudan team, a partnership between the Lopez Lomong Foundation and World Vision, to help provide clean water, health care, education, and nutrition to the South Sudanese.
"My own sister was raped while going to get water," said Lomong. "And if the girls don't have to fetch water they can focus on school. It all ties together."
Steve Haas, chief catalyst with World vision, is grateful for the partnership.
"Lopez is an icon in the world of track and field and opens up an opportunity to talk about a nation that many have given up on and that we are very serious about," Haas said.
Lomong's story has energized other athletes.
At a recent Portland gathering, Lomong's Oregon Track Club/Portland and Olympic teammate Matt Tegenkamp said, "Lomong looks at this platform as a way to help those who cannot help themselves. He sees it as a responsibility."
Other athletes have joined the 4 South Sudan team, including United States National team marathon runner Josh Cox.
"There are a lot of Christian athletes out there, but how are they serving? They might say when they get enough money they will help, or they find other reasons to wait. But Lopez is not waiting," said Cox.
And, he is also one who never loses sight of his roots.
"A lot of people who come from hard circumstances forget, but Lopez, he never forgets. He gets it, and I think it is a real testament to his character," said Cox.
Lomong returned to his village for the first time in 2007 to meet his parents, whom he learned were alive back in 2003. His parents had thought he was dead as well, having held a memorial service for him years before.
An HBO crew documented the reunion for its TV show Real Sports. Lomong met his two younger brothers, Alex and Peter, whom in 2009 he helped bring to the United States, where they currently live with host families in Virginia, attend school and, yes, run.
"When I run now, I keep thinking about the children who I had to leave behind, those who did not have the opportunity I had," Lomong said.
And, though South Sudan is always on his mind, he is thankful to God for bringing him to the United States.