- Tom Farrey, Writer, Reporter
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He remembers the AK-47s most distinctly, the menace of black metal cutting through the dank African air, introducing both panic and discipline to the Sunday morning mass beneath a shade tree.
"Sit down! Lay down!" the rebel leaders demanded as they burst upon the hillside Catholic chapel, thrusting their assault rifles at the heads of the 50 or so parishioners who had come to kneel before a peaceful God, not its spiritual inverse. Lopepe Lomong shivered in the hand-carved pews, terrified. "The guns were so big," he says now. And he was so small, just 6 years old.
Moments later, Lomong was escorted off with a dozen other school-aged children from Kimotong, their mountainside town in south Sudan. He was crying, falling down, confused. Under the rising equatorial sun, he pleaded with the camouflaged warriors to let him be with his mom and dad who were back at home, tending to the cattle and house chores. The men had other plans for Lomong. They scooped him off the reddish-brown dirt, tossed him with his peers into the rear of a canvas-covered transport truck, and slammed the tailgate shut.
The Sudanese People's Liberation Army needed conscripts in its desperate fight against government troops, who had been destroying villages in the south, just as they would later do in the Darfur region to the northwest. Lomong didn't see a family member for another 15 years. For most of that time, his parents assumed he was dead.
After a few hours riding on bumpy dirt roads that life-changing morning, the convoy of trucks reached a patch of mud huts in a camp near a lush forest. Blindfolds were removed. The boys were separated from the girls, who were destined to become wives of the soldiers. Come morning, the boys divided further, into those old enough to begin training and those too young to be trusted with aiming and cleaning a gun.
Lomong was in the latter group -- a haphazard mistake, really. He had gotten swept up in the forced recruitment drive at the church where young teens were the quarry. He was of no use to his captors. For three weeks, he ate nothing but sorghum mush -- untreated grain seed -- with a flourish of sand. There wasn't enough to go around, though, and water was scarce. One by one, the boys in his hut expired. Lomong learned to recognize the signs of a child who was about to take his final, quiet breaths. "They'd sit down, go to sleep and already be gone," he said. "Kids were dying every day."
All he wanted was to be back home in his simple, ancient village, sleeping with his parents under the thatched roof of the Lomong family hut or, on starry nights, outside on the smooth, soft hairs of a cow's hide that made the dirt floor feel downright luxurious. In Kimotong, he had played hide-and-seek with his older brother, Lothuro. He also had played Odu, a game similar to football without the ball, in which he'd have to run past his friends and reach an acadia tree to get a score. He'd played, all the time. Like a child.
So he didn't really balk when, in the middle of the night, the hand of one boy grabbed his right wrist and that of another grabbed his left. They were teenagers from his hometown, family friends, and they were escaping the camp -- with young Lopepe in tow. He'd been told of their plan earlier in the day but had forgotten about it, dismissing it as fantasy. Now he was being awakened to his dream. The boys pushed open the door made of interlocking branches and started crawling.
"We could hear the soldiers talking and laughing, lighting cigarettes," he said. "The more they talked, the more we realized we could get out. We went through a hole in the fence and started running."
They ran barefoot for two days and two nights, on and off. Around bushes and fallen branches with thorns big enough to puncture a tire. Over savanna plains and gravelly soil. Among the elephants and antelopes. All the way to northern Kenya, a few dozen miles away.
"We ran and ran and ran and ran " he said.
Lomong, 23, is still running. Only now he's doing the chasing.
It's the bell lap of the 1,500-meter final at last June's NCAA Division I outdoor track and field championships, and under a cloudless Sacramento sky, the pace setters are moving fast. Lomong, in a skintight Northern Arizona University getup nearly as dark as his rich ebony skin, moves from the middle of the pack to the second position as he rounds the corner leading to the final straightaway. The 5-foot-5 runner from Texas, Leo Manzano, who already has one NCAA title on his résumé, looks hard to beat; his legs pump like pistons, showing no sign of fatigue. But here comes Lomong, with a longer stride and muscular arms that start to swing broadly, as if he's crawling through the air toward rare opportunity. He certainly knows the motion.
"I came all the way here, so I have to run," he later said. "This is a peaceful country, a land of opportunity, so I believe my hard work will pay off one day. If I think like that, I run a little bit faster. It isn't hard to do for me. You're talking about a few laps on a track -- it doesn't compare to running for your life in the wilderness with the possibility of getting eaten by animals. Everything comes easy when I think about that, and what I have to do to help out my family."
In November, Lomong left his college career behind and signed with Nike. He now lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., pursuing his goal of making the national team at this week's trials in Eugene, Ore. As a runner, what makes Lomong special is, perhaps not surprisingly, his range. He can compete in everything from the 5,000 meters down to the 800. He placed fifth in the latter event at the U.S. track and field championships last July and was just a step from finishing in the top three (he finished fifth in the event at this week's U.S. trials, missing the Olympic team by 11 hundredths of a second). But Lomong is also strong in the 1,500, which is expected to be the most exciting race at the trials and might offer his best chance at getting to Beijing. Bernard Lagat and Alan Webb headline the field in the latter event, but the third spot is up for grabs.
"Is he capable of running with the best in the U.S. and world?" J.W. Hardy, his former coach at Northern Arizona, asked. "He certainly has the tools -- the speed and endurance."
He calls himself Lopez Lomong now; he gave himself that nickname when he lived for nearly a decade in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. That's where the border police took him and the three other boys after they made a beeline to the southeast, out of Sudan and the throes of a civil war that had engulfed the continent's largest nation. The conflict was one of the world's bloodiest of the latter half of the 20th century, with nearly 2 million civilians ultimately losing their lives and another 4 million being forced to flee their homes.
Kakuma is where tens of thousands of Sudanese ended up, a cramped, makeshift compound where many boys and girls passed through adolescence under the care of the United Nations and international relief organizations. They learned Swahili and English in open-air classrooms and played soccer for hours every day on the dusty, unlined lots. Some of the lucky ones, like Lomong, got moved to public schools outside the capital city of Nairobi. But where to from there? No one could really know what the future held.
There was hope in the unseen: The U.S. government was offering visas to resettle about 3,800 of the displaced boys in 38 states. Unsure whether his parents were even alive anymore, Lomong wrote an essay in 2001 describing his life story and desire to come to America. The immigration gatekeepers were sold, and at age 16, he was placed on an airplane, a first for him, headed for Cairo, then another bound for Beijing, another headed to John F. Kennedy Airport, and finally a commuter jet set for Syracuse, N.Y. Greeting him at the gate, just six weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were his new foster parents, Robert and Barbara Rogers, who had learned of the resettlement program through their Catholic church. They held aloft a sign that read, "Welcome Joseph," in reference to his baptized name that he had picked up in Kimotong.
"There aren't too many Africans coming into Syracuse, so it was pretty easy to pick him out," Barbara Rogers said.
Lomong was wearing plaid trousers that had gone out of style in the 1980s and brought with him no luggage other than a small knapsack, having given away his few belongings to former camp mates before departing Nairobi. He was ready for his extreme makeover. But acclimating to American life meant learning the basics from scratch. He had never used a refrigerator, so the milk ended up in the freezer. The first couple of days in the Rogers' two-story lakeside home in Tully, N.Y., he slept with the lights on all night because he didn't know that the switch on the wall could shut them off. He shivered in bed, too, until he gained basic fluency with the shower nozzle.
"I just thought Americans take showers with cold water," he said. "I didn't know how to do all of those things."
He couldn't believe the Rogers family had a car, much less three. And a mobile phone! And a, what's this a microwave? Mind-blowing luxuries -- if you're from a subsistence, agrarian society where the way of life hasn't changed much in the past 1,000 years. In Kimotong, members of his Boya tribe grow sorghum and raise cattle, just as their ancestors did. The modern marvels that have most reshaped lives are the weapons of war, the guns that the northern government furnished to rival tribes to incite south-on-south mayhem, and the land mines that lay in wait, along unpaved roads and under mango trees. In Tully, by contrast, they have air-conditioned supermarkets with boxes of cake mix. Which Lomong didn't realize was just mix, and not the actual cake, until he got home and opened one.
He's learned a lot in America, and about America, the past six years. In some ways, he now knows more than many people who were born here -- about the important stuff, at least. He can talk about the constitution of the Constitution, who makes the laws, and how the three branches of the federal government work together. Some of this he had to bone up on to gain his U.S. citizenship, a status conferred on him last year. But the material already was familiar to him, as he was paying attention back in his high school civics class. The architecture of a viable democracy mattered to him.
Should Lomong make the U.S. Olympic team and qualify for Beijing, look for him to exercise one of his inalienable rights.
"I'll say it's not a good thing for China to sponsor the government of Sudan and kill innocent people," he said of the genocide in Darfur that has left more than 300,000 dead and 3 million homeless. The hard-line military leaders who stoked war in the oil-rich south when Lomong was a boy remain in power, only now their tactics are being applied to control the potentially oil-rich west. In Darfur, the slaughter has been carried out by the Janjaweed horseback militia, a band of Arab nomads recruited and financed by the Khartoum government, which receives cash, arms and political protection from China.
The atrocities have led to the creation of Team Darfur, an international coalition of more than 300 current and former athletes pledging to address the crisis. More than three dozen of them are from the U.S., and though the organization's official Web site does not list Lomong among the group, his advocacy for the cause could be significant should he get to Beijing.
At the same time, he tries to be understanding of athletes who have taken a more cautious posture, such as LeBron James, who was one of two Cleveland Cavaliers last year who refused to sign a petition protesting China's support of Khartoum.
"He probably didn't know what's going on in Sudan and his teammates did," Lomong said of the NBA superstar, who in recent months has adjusted his stance and suggested he'd be comfortable making some type of political gesture in Beijing. "If I was born here in the U.S. and didn't travel too much, maybe I wouldn't know what's going on overseas. But me, if I was here during the Vietnam War, I would have signed a petition saying we need to get out of it and not harm innocent people."
Of course, Lomong has fewer business interests in China than James, who has his own museum there and a $90 million contract with a company, Nike, that has grand designs on tapping into that vast and growing market. Lomong still lives like a college student, bunking at the USOC campus. He's just an emerging, graceful talent with his own notion of what it means to live large.
As a human being, Lomong exudes depth and maturity. As a runner? There's ample room for improvement, both tactically and technically. After all, he took up the sport only in high school, when the track coach in Tully heard from the Rogerses that their foster child wanted to take a long jog around town, like he once did in Kakuma to kill time. "I'll be right on down," the coach told them, and sealed the deal with a track jacket that had Lomong's name stitched on the back.
"I was very pleased," Lomong said with a quiet laugh, "because in Africa, if you have your name on a shirt, you're a big-time person. I was basically recruited to running with a jacket."
He has never forgotten where he came from. For years, he has been sending $200 a month to his mother Rita, who, after the Rogers family found out she was alive a year after Lomong's U.S. arrival, was relocated with his two younger brothers and sister to a modest apartment outside the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The money buys corn at the farmers' market, shoes and, for the wet season, rain jackets. These items make the family relatively advantaged compared to much of the population, even if they still have to boil their water before drinking it, as such basic necessities of everyday living elude many Africans.
Last August, after years of giving back, Lomong finally got to go back. All grown up now, with a gap-toothed grin as wide as his bright, open face, he flew to Nairobi to see his family with an HBO crew in tow. As the SUV he was in pulled into the neighborhood, drawing the attention of children, one of the kids recognized him as family. "It happened to be one of my little brothers, Peter, who I'd never met," Lomong said. Then, he found his mother, who sobbed, embraced him and kept saying his various names.
"Lopez" "Lopepe" "Mope."
Mope? "Apparently, one of my names I didn't know about," he said.
Lomong returned to Kenya in January, on his own this time, driving across the northern border for the second time in six months into Kimotong, back to a village where meat is scarce and the slaying of a goat is saved for special occasions. So the town chiefs slayed several. Before the meal, the lost son of Sudan was asked to leap over a goat three times, a tribal ritual assigned to those who once had been written off as expired, only to return home. He'd done this on the first trip, too, but some of the 250 villagers had missed him.
"That way everyone could be sure I wasn't dead," he said.
He wasn't dead, of course. He'd just passed into his next life.
Tom Farrey, an ESPN television correspondent and senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is author of "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children" (ESPN Books), an investigative look into the world of youth sports and athlete development that was published in May.
Every time Lopepe Lomong runs, he remembers where he came from -- being led out of a church by soldiers with AK-47s as a child in war-torn Sudan. And he won't forget that as he tries to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic track team.