From the Field

Lopez Lomong runs for refugees and clean water

Lopez Lomong, a South Sudanese “Lost Boy,” became an Olympic long-distance runner and advocate for clean water and South Sudan’s refugees.

Lopez Lomong has traveled a long way in his life. From a sordid, Sudanese prison camp after he was kidnapped at age 6, he went on to the ornate pavilions of the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing. But one thread flows through it all: running.

As Lopez chronicled in his memoir, “Running for My Life,” he was abducted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.  For weeks he was locked in an unsanitary hut in a prison camp with little food. Many boys cooped up with him died during the night.

With the help of three older boys, Lopez escaped. The fugitives ran for three days and crossed into Kenya where they were taken to a refugee camp. Lopez lived in the camp for 10 years.

As a boy, his first love was soccer, but Lopez developed lightning speed as a runner when boys were required to run around the perimeter of the refugee camp before being allowed to play on the camp’s soccer field.

“I ran fast because I loved soccer,” he says.

Lopez was among 20,000 Sudanese children, called the Lost Boys, who were uprooted from their homes in southern Sudan during the second Sudanese civil war.

A new life in America

In 2001, Lopez left the refugee camp in Kenya to be resettled in America. About 4,000 Lost Boys came to the United States that year.

Lopez was adopted by Rob and Barb Rogers of Tully, New York, and settled into suburban America, where he marveled at hot and cold running water and indoor lighting.

As a 16-year-old, he spoke only a smattering of English. His native tongue is Swahili, and he simply answered “yes” to everything. But Lopez was eager to learn, and he graduated from high school on time.

And of course, Lopez kept on running. He was the fastest runner in his high school. Then at Northern Arizona University, he won two NCAA championships. Lopez credits Barb and Rob not only with helping him secure a college education, but regularly attending all his running events — a degree of parental support he says his fellow competitors did not enjoy.

Lopez turned pro in 2007 and became a U.S. citizen in time to qualify for Olympic trials the following year.

In 2008, as a member of the American team, Lopez carried the United States flag for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he made it into the semifinals of the 1,500 meters. In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Lopez placed 10th in the men’s 5000 meters race.

Lopez continues to train and travel extensively, both as a competitor and pacer for major international distance competitions.

He is proud of his two brothers, Peter and Alex, who are also runners. They are some of the fastest U.S. collegians for their age. Peter ran for the national champion Northern Arizona cross country team that won the 2018 NCAA Championships. Lopez brought them to the U.S. to pursue their dreams. He jokingly chalks up their success to great genes and the fact that they had three square meals a day, unlike his one meal per day in the Kenya refugee camp.

Giving others a chance

What powers Lopez even more than his passion for running is an even deeper passion to help the most vulnerable people in South Sudan. It’s a passion he shares with his wife, Brittany.

“I was given an opportunity; I was given a chance to tell my story,” Lopez says. “It’s no longer about me. It’s about them. It’s about people going through all these things as we speak: the children who don’t have education, the kids who are dying every day … the poverty that people are going through right now.

“And clean water. Have you ever gone without clean water or even water? And yet there’s people walking 15 to 20 miles to just fetch two gallons of clean water somewhere, and it’s not enough.”

While establishing his career as an outstanding middle distance runner, Lopez started the Lopez Lomong Foundation in late 2011 to give back to his native South Sudan. The foundation joined with World Vision to launch the 4 South Sudan campaign to raise money and awareness to bring clean water, basic healthcare, access to education, and life-saving nutrition to children. Recognizing his advocacy work, Lopez was named the Visa Humanitarian of the Year in 2012.

To date, through the Oregon Hood to Coast relay race — one of the partnership’s fundraising venues — they have raised $2.5 million and set a goal of $1 million in 2018 for the 10 Team World Vision teams competing.

Barb, Lopez’s adoptive mother, said he appreciates how difficult it is when people don’t have choices and opportunities.

“I think that’s why he is trying to make a difference and help others,” Barb says. “Some people want to be known for the sake of being known, that’s not where he is at; that’s not his drive.”

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