Lomong through the eyes of his parents
In this era of here today and gone tomorrow, the Lopez Lomong story just keeps on giving.
Michael Phelps is already yesterday’s news. Lopez Lomong was last week’s, yesterday’s, today’s and generations to come. Phelps’ place is secure in the record books, Lomong’s in our hearts.
Tuesday was meet-the-parents day here. Rob and Barbara Rogers of Tully, N.Y., added to the tale of their son, Lopez, whom they adopted, as one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, from a refugee camp in Kenya in 2001.
Little did they know that he would go on to become a world-class runner, get to the Olympic semifinals in the 1,500 meters before being eliminated Sunday, and be elected his country’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony.
“We had to look it up to see what that meant,” said Barbara Rogers. “Then we cried.”
Said Rob Rogers, “There will be something like 30 gold medals for United States athletes here. There is just one person selected every four years. That goes way beyond a gold medal, and it is an honor bestowed on you by all the best athletes in your country.”
Lomong’s story has become a near legend by now -- his escape from Sudan, life on the run, life for 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp and eventual adoption, through a United Nations program, by the Rogers family.
The stories flowed nonstop.
“We got him at the airport,” Rob Rogers said, “walked down to baggage and I said we’d get his stuff and go to the car. He looked at me and said, ‘You have a car?’
“We got home and went inside and showed him our guest bedroom and he said, ‘That’s where we all sleep?’
“So we took him upstairs to our son’s room [Rob Jr. had left home for college], told him that was where he would sleep and let him rest. I got up in the middle of the night and noticed the light was still on. I went out the next day to get him a lamp, thinking he wanted light when he slept. Turned out, he had no idea where or how to turn it off. He had never had any electricity.”
It was only a few days later that Rob and Barbara Rogers started to explore who this new teenage boy in their life really was.
“We had been given an age and name, nothing else,” Rob Rogers said. “They didn’t tell them they were getting parents. For the first weeks, he said yes to everything and went out of his way to do what we said. He thought he had gotten to us by mistake, that any day, somebody would come and take him away, or send him to the servants’ quarters.”
The Rogers family lives on a lake in Tully, so one night, shortly after he arrived, the new family, Barb, Rob and Lopez, went for a boat ride.
“It was August,” Rob Rogers said. “We went out to the middle of the lake, went for a swim. Then we asked him to tell us about himself.”
Like the rest of the world that has now heard it, the couple were mesmerized by the story.
“We told him, ‘We will protect you. You are safe,’ ” Rob Rogers said.
Also in on the storytelling was longtime Tully High School track and cross country coach, Jim Paccia, a close friend of the Rogers family, who called to ask about the couple’s new son shortly after Lomong arrived.
“Rob said Lopez had just gone out for a run, a 30K,” Paccia said. “I said I’d be right over.”
He said Lomong’s first high school race was memorable.
“We talked before the race about strategy, about pacing yourself,” Paccia said. “Then the gun went off and after 800 meters, Lopez was 400 meters ahead. After a mile, he had passed the golf cart that is supposed to stay in front of the runners and lead them around the course.”
“I thought that was what it was out there for, to catch,” he said.
Paccia said Lomong lost that race -- “had to carry that piano on his shoulders the last half-mile,” he said -- but didn’t lose again in high school.
Paccia said that, like the moment Rob and Barbara had with Lomong on the lake, he had one with him on a hill, one around Tully that his teams use to train.
“We stopped to talk,” Paccia said, “and we talked about his goals, what he wanted to do with his life. He said, ‘I want to run for the United States in the 2008 Olympics in China.’ Now I’ve had kids talk to me about their goals, but it’s not often you get that.”
The Rogerses and Paccia and several others got to Beijing to see Lomong, 23, run because of a community fundraiser that was not of their doing but impossible to decline.
Rob Rogers said that a caterer donated the services and asked what size crowd he expected.
“I told him 400,” Rogers said. “He kept thinking more like 200 to 300. The day of the event, 1,200 people showed up.”
Barbara Rogers has come a long way since that day in the midsummer of 2001, when her husband came home, said he had seen a sign-up sheet for families interested in providing a home for one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, and told her he wanted to do it.
“Her reaction was,” he said, “ ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”
Now with their son Rob Jr. married and on his own, the couple have the opposite of the empty nest that prompted the first thoughts of adoption. In addition to Lomong, they have five more sons, ages 15 to 22, adopted from African refugee programs.
For each, it can fairly be assumed that their new existence was fittingly summed up by Lomong’s thoughts when he came out to run the first round of his first international race Friday in a huge Olympic Stadium 10,000 miles from home.
Lomong said, “I looked up there and said, ‘Yup, there’s my parents.’ ”
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.