Millions of people watched runner Lopez Lomong carry the American flag and lead the United States delegation into the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, marveling at the Sudanese refugee who survived unspeakable horrors before an American foster family took him in and gave him a new life.
Few people will see him repeat his flag-bearer role Friday in a different setting, but the occasion will be just as meaningful.
Lomong will be the standard bearer for Northern Arizona University’s school of business at graduation ceremonies in Flagstaff, an honor bestowed by faculty members. After leaving school in 2007 to train for the Olympics, where he finished 12th in his semifinal in the 1,500 meters, he returned this semester to complete his degree in hotel and restaurant management. Again, he was chosen to lead his peers.
“It’s an incredible thing,” said Lomong, 26. “You can be in a refugee camp and not have anything, but you matter because this is a country that will give you an opportunity to accomplish whatever you want to accomplish in your life.”
Abducted from his family by government militia forces when he was 6, Lomong ran away but was caught and spent a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp with other youngsters dubbed the Lost Boys of Sudan. He raked dirt for pennies and never had enough to eat but was inspired to run when he saw the 2000 Olympics on a black and white TV in the camp.
A charitable organization helped place him with Bob and Barbara Rogers in Tully, N.Y., near Syracuse, and they nurtured his love of running. A world that could be so cruel suddenly gave him such joy.
“Eleven years ago I didn’t even think anything. I was in a dark moment. I had zero education. Zero alphabet. Zero everything,” he said in a phone interview.
“When I came here in 2001 I was introduced to all that, and I said no matter how long it takes I want to be a college graduate. I want to be part of an alumni community so I can tell my story in a different way, so I can go and speak to kids in high school and colleges and tell them how important education is.”
His foster parents urged him to get his degree, but running took him around the world. A two-time NCAA champion at Northern Arizona, he became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and won national 1,500 titles in 2009 and 2010. He finished seventh this year, less than a second behind winner Matt Centrowitz.
He took classes online but put his needs aside to care for the siblings he discovered in 2007, long after he thought they had died and they had given him a symbolic burial. He got his younger brothers, Alex and Peter, out of Sudan in 2009 and into Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, where both are runners. He also established a foundation to help women, children and families in Sudan, a venture he hopes to expand worldwide.
Jon Hales, one of Lomong’s professors and his advisor, encouraged him to return to campus for the final lap of his academic career. Hales guided Lomong through a 22-hour load that included courses in economics and accounting, helping him finish so he can focus on making the U.S. team for next summer’s London Olympics.
“Pretty challenging,” Hales said, adding that Lomong also served as vice president of a student club. “You hear all these negative things about college athletics and here’s a really nice story.
“He’s had a really impressive semester. His world travels bring an international perspective to our school.”
As much as Lomong brings to Northern Arizona, he feels he has gained more.
“Coming back here I was just so blessed,” he said. “My parents always said, ‘Hey, you’re going to college. You’re going to graduate from college.’ It really empowered me to work hard and to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m an Olympian, but also how great that would be to be called alumni of the university.’”
That will come true Friday, with his foster parents planning to be in Flagstaff and his brothers watching online. His late foster grandmother, the woman he called Grandma Rogers, will be in his heart.
“When I went to Beijing she was supporting me, calling me, also reminding me, ‘When are you going back to school?’” he said, laughing.
“She will not be able to be here physically, but she will look back on me and she will be very proud of what I did along the journey.”
His athletic journey, however, is far from over.
“That one will continue until I’m on the podium and bringing the medal to this country, because all the talent that I had in my life is being discovered here, because of the people who helped me and supported me and root for me,” he said. “That dream is going to keep going until 2012, ’16 and eventually 2020. We’ll be chasing it down step by step.”
When he has come so far, who can doubt him?