Talk about an impossible dream. Yet it came true. Eight years later, Lomong represented America in the Beijing Olympics, making the semifinals in the 1,500-meter race before a cranky hamstring ended his medal hopes. This time he will compete again for his new country, moving up to the 5,000-meter run. This book tells how it all happened, and I defy any reader to remain unmoved. When I saw a picture of Lomong in his Olympic uniform, tears came to my eyes.
More than 40 Olympians on the U.S. squad are foreign-born, and that’s particularly fitting because immigrants contribute so much to our national culture and character. The great genius of America is that it draws newcomers from all over the world who are particularly resilient, talented and tenacious. Some build houses, as my grandfathers did after arriving from Russia 100 years ago. Others crate groceries or create Google. A few jump very high and run very fast.
In fact, when Lomong was born in the tiny Sudanese village of Kimotong, his parents prophetically named him Lopepe, which means “fast” in their native dialect (Lopez is a nickname). The family lived in a mud hut with no running water or electricity. The village had no school, and his parents were illiterate. They didn’t own a plow and planted their crops entirely by hand. When rebel soldiers kidnapped all the children at a church service and threw them into the back of a truck, it was the first time the boy had ridden in a vehicle of any kind.
The rebels were training their captives to be soldiers when three older boys engineered an escape and took Lomong with them. They ran for days, thinking they were headed home, but instead found themselves in Kenya, where border guards sent them to a refugee camp. Life there was boring and food scarce. The high point of their week came when the U.N. workers who ran the facility dumped their refuse and the boys “went after the garbage like hungry hyenas fighting over a gazelle carcass.” Lomong’s only escape was sports, and most days he ran around the perimeter of the entire camp, 18 miles, in bare feet. “When I ran, I was in control of my life,” he writes. “I ran for me.”
Not long after the 2000 Olympics, the United States decided to accept 3,500 “lost boys” from Sudan, and after Lomong made it through the selection process, he was sent to live with a family in Upstate New York. He failed some of his initial high school courses, but again running saved him. “Running was about the only thing familiar for me in America,” he writes. “I had to learn everything else from scratch.”
Lomong’s parents thought he was probably dead, and they had buried his meager belongings — a shirt, shorts, a few toys — under a pile of rocks in the village graveyard. But his mother never stopped looking for him, and one day she showed up in the Kenyan camp, asking questions. His friends told her that Lopez was living in America, and eventually the message reached him: Call your mother, here’s her cellphone number. He had largely forgotten his boyhood language, Buya, and he could barely understand her. She was equally confused and didn’t recognize his voice: “She expected the voice of a child, not a full-grown man.” But she finally believed him when he said, “Yes, mother, I am alive.”
Lomong became a high school star, got a scholarship to track-power Northern Arizona, met a girl, brought his two brothers to America. His foster parents, Rob and Barb Rogers, adopted five other Sudanese boys and sent money to Lomong’s family. The young man returned to Africa, saw his parents for the first time in 17 years and was honored in a ceremony in his home village: A tribal elder smeared him with goat guts to bestow “a great blessing” and drive away “any evil spirits.” After seeing the poverty still gripping his homeland, he created a foundation aimed at improving living conditions in South Sudan.
It’s simply a great story, well-told (with the help of Mark Tabb) in unadorned language that makes it accessible to teenage readers as well as adults. When Lomong was running in the Olympic trials four years ago, a friend held up a sign saying “Run fast, Lopepe” in Swahili. After reading this book, you’ll be holding up your own sign and cheering for him when he runs in London.
Steven V. Roberts
teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and is working on a book about immigrant athletes.