A dream becomes reality
Arizona Republic
Aug 14, 2008


Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ) - August 14, 2008

Author: Jeff Metcalfe, The Arizona Republic

The Lopez Lomong story is becoming familiar now that he is one of 23 flag bearers in a century of U.S. Olympic history.

He never seems to tire of retelling in minute detail about his abduction as a 6-year-old by Sudanese rebels, then his miraculous escape leading to an impoverished decade in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Twice a year, chicken was on the menu.

"One chicken shared by 10 kids," divided into small pieces and boiled with salt for soup, Lomong said. "If you get a little piece of chicken, Merry Christmas to you."

That's why the McDonald's chicken sandwich when he first arrived in the United States in summer 2001 as one of the 3,500 Lost Boys of Sudan carried such meaning.

Just being allowed in a restaurant was a breakthrough, since he couldn't get through the door in Kenya as a refugee with no money.

Then to be told by his foster parents, Robert and Barbara Rogers, that he should throw away food he couldn't eat was incomprehensible.

"I took it home and ate it the next day," he said of the leftover sandwich. "I started calling my friends back home and I'd tell them" about the opulence of everything from houses to cars to showers to disposable plastic cups in Tully, N.Y., a town of fewer than 1,000 close to Syracuse. "They're like, 'No, you're lying.' They don't know how much I have."

Rob Rogers, who owns apartments and sells construction equipment, remembers then-16-year-old Lomong never saying no.

"Every single thing I asked, he said, 'Yes' and 'OK,' " Rogers said. "He didn't know anything. He was sleeping with the light on, and I thought he was afraid of the dark, but he didn't know how to turn it off."

Six months later, Lomong admitted to his new dad that he was in fear that even the slightest trouble would mean a return to Africa, where the richest man he knew was a traveling minister who owned his own soccer ball.

"When he heard we had all the food we ever wanted, he assumed it was sacks of ground corn," Rogers said. "He thought we were really nice, dumb people who made a huge mistake," taking him in through Catholic Charities.

Recruiting NAU

The Rogers' decision proved so uplifting that Lomong became the first of six foster sons from Sudan. Dominic Luka, the second, joined Lomong to run cross country and track at Tully High. Then both started in college at Norfolk State (Va.), where Lomong was an unhappy redshirt in 2004-05.

He learned of Northern Arizona through another athlete and also was aware of Jack Daniels, who became distance coach at Center for High Altitude Training in Flagstaff after his college coaching career at State University of New York at Cortland.

Lomong recruited NAU rather than the other way around.

"We tried to talk him out of it," Rob Rogers said. "It just seemed like he was jumping around, and doing it in late summer (2005), we thought he might not get a scholarship. He wouldn't be where he is now if he hadn't gone to NAU."

John Hayes was going into his second year as cross-country and track distance coach at NAU at the time.

"I didn't know how fast he could go," Hayes told USA Today in April 2007. "I will never doubt anything he says he can do."

Soon after those comments, Lomong won the 1,500 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Championships to pair with the 3,000 title he won earlier in 2007 at the NCAA Indoor. After finishing third at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in fall 2007, Lomong left school to train with Hayes, who had moved to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"Realistically, I thought he might make it to London in 2012," Barb Rogers said. "We didn't expect this."

Immigrant milers

One year to the day (July 6) after becoming an American citizen, the 23-year-old Lomong beat out three-time U.S. champion Alan Webb among others to make the Olympics in the 1,500. He missed qualifying in the 800, finishing a close fifth.

A month later, two nights before the opening ceremony, U.S. team captains voted for Lomong to lead the 596-athlete delegation as flag bearer.

"It's what they call a dream makes history," he said. "American people with a great democracy that they have to come here and have a chance of voting me to be a flag bearer. I don't even have a word for it."

On Friday at approximately 4:10 a.m. (Arizona time), a week after the opening-ceremony honor, Lomong returns to the Bird's Nest for the first round of the 1,500. His metric mile teammates are 2007 world champion Bernard Lagat of Tucson, a native of Kenya, and Leo Manzano, born in Mexico.

"It really shows what America is about," said James Li, Lagat's coach and U.S. men's track manager. Li, associate head track coach at the University of Arizona, is a Chinese native.

"We are an immigrant country. If you go back 100 or 150 years, this is completely normal except those were probably immigrants from Ireland or Germany, not from Mexico or Sudan or China. They are very enthusiastic about believing in this country and proud running for this country. Obviously the country has given them and given me tremendous opportunity. It's their turn, it's my turn to give back to the country."

Daniels, 75, has seen it all in running. He told Runner's World that Lomong reminds him of Tom O'Hara, who held the world indoor mile record and ran in the 1,500 at the 1964 Olympics.

Rob Rogers, who will be here with his wife, believes it will be easier to watch Lomong in the Olympics than at the trials.

"He said since 10th grade he's going to run at the Olympics and focused his whole life on that one goal," Rogers said. "I was terrified to see him run that (trials) race, make it or break it.

"Only he qualified; anything is gravy. Being the flag bearer is frosting on the gravy."

New life

Lomong's biological parents thought he was dead. He feared the same of them until speaking by telephone in 2003 with his mother, Rita Namana, for the first time since his kidnapping from a church service in 1991.

A reunion in Kenya occurred in August 2007. Lomong returned at Christmas to learn more of their side of his story.

"They look everywhere in a radius of 15 miles, and they didn't find anything about us," he said. "So they went back home and perform a funeral for me," burying beads and other childhood possessions.

Together, they unearthed the grave, then Lomong spoke at the very church from which his family was ripped apart.

"I told the whole village, 'don't conclude somebody is probably already dead,' " he said.

"Maybe they are somewhere out there. I'm alive again."


TV marquee

Swimming: Michael Phelps' good friend Ryan Lochte stands in the way of gold medal No. 6 as his toughest challenger in the 200 individual medley. Three other swimming finals include a women's 100 freestyle showdown between Natalie Coughlin and Australia's Libby Trickett, and Aaron Peirsol's bid for another gold in the men's 200 backstroke. (Channel 12, 7 p.m.)

Gymnastics: U.S. teammates Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin try to wipe away the disappointment of team silver with individual gold in the women's all-around. (Channel 12, 7 p.m.)

Soccer: Team USA takes on Canada in the women's quarterfinals. (USA, 3 a.m. Friday)

Baseball: The U.S. looks to bounce back from a rocky start by upsetting defending champion Cuba. (USA, 11 p.m.)



NATION..............Gold... Silver...Bronze.......... TOT

United States............ 10......... 8......... 13............. 31

China.........................18......... 7.......... 5............. 30

Australia......................5......... 4.......... 7............. 16

South Korea................6......... 6.......... 1............. 13

France.........................2......... 7.......... 4............. 13

Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Sports
Page: C1
Dateline: BEIJING, AZ
Record Number: pho108972082