Lopez Lomong learned to run as a means of survival. Now, he runs for sport — and he's fast.
At the age of 6, he fled Sudan with his family to avoid being killed by rebel militias. For three days, he ran for his life, across hundreds of miles of African wilderness.
Now, he's a sophomore at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and has a good chance of clinching the title of national champion in the NCAA's 1500-meter race this week in Sacramento.
Laurel Morales reports from member station KNAU.
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One of the top college distance runners in this country learned to run as a means of survival. He ran from rebel militiamen during the Sudanese civil war in the early 1990s. Today, he runs for Northern Arizona University. He's only a sophomore, but he's about to compete for his second national title in the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales introduces us.
LAUREL MORALES: Trying to go for a run with Lopez Lomong is like attempting to run alongside a sports car. He has a tremendous kick - that means in the final 100 meters of a race, he is able to shift into a higher gear.
Unidentified Man: How are you feeling today, Lopez?
Mr. LOPEZ LOMONG (Distance runner): Feeling good.
Unidentified Man: You feel good?
Mr. LOMONG: Yeah.
Unidentified Man: Good.
MORALES: At a recent track practice, Lomong and his teammates run sprints. The NAU motto is practice hard, race easily.
Lopez hardly makes a sound, as his long legs appear to glide over the track. He's built for speed and endurance, taller and broader than most distance runners. His dark eyes are fierce, intent on the goal - to win.
Distance coach John Hayes(ph) as Lomong has been able to increase his endurance over the last two years, learning how to run at high altitude. Hayes believes Lomong's past makes him a determined athlete.
Mr. JOHN HAYES (Distance Coach, Northern Arizona University): I'm sure it increases his ability to tolerate pain. And his mental toughness from what he's been through kind of makes him hardheaded. And that presents its challenges for me, but it also makes him the athlete that he is. I mean, he doesn't want to settle for second in anything.
MORALES: And he hasn't. The three-time all-American is the reigning NCAA 3000 meter champion. Associate editor of Track and Field News Jon Hendershott has been following Lomong since he first saw him compete last year.
Mr. JON HENDERSHOTT (Associate Editor, Track and Field News): The very fact of just seeing him finish the way he does was very impressive. It's one of those things were you thought that wasn't just a one-time thing. Keep your eye on that guy.
MORALES: Lomong was 6 years old when he fled a prison camp in Sudan. He and three older boys ran for three days until they reached the Sudan-Kenya border.
Mr. LOMONG: They were like 14 or 15. They were just dragging me along because -two of them while holding my hand, while they are running with bare feet. I was just like trying to keep up.
MORALES: Lomong and his friends found a refugee camp in Kenya. There, he lived for 10 years, separated from his parents and five siblings. Then in 2001, a couple from New York gave him a new home. Rob and Barbara Rogers(ph) had heard about the lost boys at their church. Today, they have six Sudanese foster children. Lopez was their guinea pig.
Mr. ROB ROGERS: He just was nodding his head and smiling. He figured he was there by mistake. There was no way he belonged there, and that we didn't know. And he was trying to be really good because he thought he'd get in a lot of trouble when they found out he was there.
Mr. LOMONG: It was like heaven, you know, because there is life. Instead of being in a camp - everywhere is just dark and, you know, there is no opportunity or there is no life around.
MORALES: NAU coach Hayes says he's seen other athletes make it to this point only to get sidetracked. But he thinks Lomong really has a chance.
Mr. HAYES: I don't see a limit in what he can accomplish, whether it be staying on the metal stand someday in the Olympics or just winning NCAA titles. It just depends on a lot of the moves he's going to end up making over the next few years.
MORALES: Lomong doesn't see limits either. He says he would like to represent the U.S. at the Olympics to say thank you to the country that gave him so many breaks.
Mr. LOMONG: Before I go to run, I had to flashback to when I was in Sudan. I say, everything I do is a gift. And if my life would've been ended then, (unintelligible) we ought to have this opportunity.
MORALES: Lomong has a big summer. After competing in the NCAA championships, he'll take a citizenship test. He then hopes to be able to visit his family in East Africa and eventually bring them to the U.S.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.