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Runner's survival as a 'Lost Boy' in Sudan fuels quest for gold

Lopez: Coming to America brought new life, blessings
by: COURTESY OF PETER CHEE, Sudanese-born Lopez Lomong lives in Lake Oswego and trains in the Portland area, including in the woods around Nike, but the U.S. Olympian's heart still resides somewhat in his war-torn home country.

When Lopez Lomong was 6, he was marked for death because he was too little and weak to carry an AK-47 and serve in a rebel army in South Sudan.

In 2008, he was in the world spotlight as he led the delegation of American athletes marching into the Olympic stadium in Beijing. He had no trouble carrying the American flag at all.

Now a new resident of Lake Oswego and preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the 27-year-old Lomong's trajectory of life has been incredible, going from tragedy to triumph. He has scored a tremendous victory for the human spirit. And he wants to pass on his blessings.

"I am so blessed to be in America," Lomong says. "I want to use my platform as an athlete to tell my story. Because I am a survivor, people can relate to me so they can overcome their own obstacles."

Lomong had a short childhood. He was "the happiest kid" growing up in a South Sudanese village, poor but surrounded by a loving family. But the violence of the civil war raging in South Sudan was pulling in the innocent by the thousands. Lomong's life changed one terrible day.

"I was kidnapped from my village by rebels," says Lomong, who was snatched from a Catholic mass. "They wanted me to be in the Sudan People's Liberation Army."

But it didn't take long for the little boy to wash out, because he was unable to heft an AK-47. That meant he was no good for killing enemies, so the rebels immediately left him to die in their nightmare-like camp, where he watched many little boys slowly die of starvation every day for several weeks. Their food was grain mixed with sand.

That is when "my angels" came to save

Lomong's life. They were teenage boys who took compassion upon him.

"They told me to eat one grain at a time and to drink water," Lomong says. "They said, 'You should be all right.' "

Lomong and his friends were able to escape from the death camp. Running for three days, they managed to cross the border into Kenya, where they were taken into a refugee camp. There he lived for 10 years, barely existing on a pitiful ration of food and receiving no education. Lomong did play some sports. The boys of the camp used a wadded-up bag of garbage as a soccer ball. He also ran on the vast plains of Kenya.

Meanwhile, his family thought he was dead.

Somehow, in this harsh, tough camp, Lomong received a great gift -- a vision.

"There was a rich Kenyan who had a TV set with a small black and white screen," Lomong says. "His place was so dirty. He charged us five shillings to watch his TV, and I had never seen TV in my life. We watched soccer."

They also watched the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and it changed Lomong's life.

"I saw Michael Johnson win the 400 meters," Lomong says. "He cried on the podium. I wondered why. From then on, I wanted to run as fast as that guy. I would walk five miles to watch the rich guy's TV. Now I knew there was a world outside that miserable camp.

"I told myself, 'I want to be an Olympian. I want to wear exactly the same jersey as Michael Johnson.' "

One day, fate again drastically changed Lomong's life, and this time it was for good. At 16, he wrote an essay about what he would do if he had the chance to come to the United States, and he sent it to Catholic Charities. The organization was so moved by Lomong's story that he was chosen as one of 300 "Lost Boys of Sudan" who received the chance to come live in the United States. Lomong was taken in by a family in Tully, N.Y.

For a while, though, his life was more shocking than happy.

"I arrived on July 31, 2001, and it was amazing," he says. "I had my own room. I got a backpack, books, crayons, things I had never had in my life. But I couldn't even read the books because I had no opportunity for schooling. They hired a tutor for me and put me in an ESL class. In six months, I figured it out."

Lomong may have been way behind American students, but he showed a true gift for running.

He came under the wing of the cross-country coach at his high school. His immense potential later blossomed at Northern Arizona University, where he became the NCAA indoor champion at 3,000 meters and outdoor champion at 1,500 meters in 2007.

His dreams really took wings in 2008, when he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500 and his teammates chose him to carry the flag in the opening ceremonies -- just like his idol, Michael Johnson.

Lomong got to meet Johnson, and even become good friends with him. Lomong reunited with his family, which he had feared were killed in the civil war. His life became very good, and the latest chapter of it will be lived in Lake Oswego.

"I love this state," Lomong says. "I want to start a family here."

But the former kidnap victim, death-camp survivor and "Lost Boy" wants to do much more. He wants to help the children of South Sudan.

"I've worked with World Vision and Walk for Water," Lomong says. "I had a sister who was raped while she was going for water, and I don't want that to happen to any kid. I'm the only person in my family who ever graduated from college, and I want to pass that blessing on to other children. With the help of my friends in America, we can get the resources to help them."

He has raised $100,000, with a focus on water. He has a big trip planned, and it's not only to London for the Olympics.

"After the London Olympics, I want to bring the athletes to South Sudan and show their medals," says Lomong, who has worked with Thomas Nelson on "Running For My Life," his autobiography. "Sudan is now crawling. When they see an Olympian, it might help Sudan walk."