At Beijing 2008, Lopez Lomong served as the flag bearer for the United States during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. He also competed in the 1500 meters. Four years later, at the London 2012 games he has switched to the 5000 meters. His first book, an account of his journey as one of the “Lost Boys” walking through Sudan to running in the Summer Olympics, was released on Tuesday July 17.
With just over a week before the games begin, he discusses his journey through war, his path to the Olympics and his hopes for building his native South Sudan.
Your book talks about your personal experiences in Sudan, where you were captured and almost forced to be a child soldier, then escaped by running for three straight days and nights. How did these experiences shape your approach to running?
It pushed me to a stronger person mentally and physically. God was basically the only person to help me. I used to be running from the bullets, from the people that were recruiting me to be a child soldier. I’m running for joy now. When I’m running on the track, I don’t want to give up.
For all the people that have helped me in the United States, I just wanted to do this for them and to thank them. They took chances to allow the Lost Boys to enter this country and to allow them to become great American citizens. It gives me a very strong feeling knowing that this is the country I represent. To be able to call myself a U.S. Olympian is incredible.
What kind of support network has helped you get where you are today?
I haven’t done it alone. I was privileged enough to be adopted into a host family in upstate New York. They showed me which crowd to hang with and told me that my destination is college. It was a big network of support.
I had the chance to go to Northern Arizona University, and I would have never had that privilege in Kakuma refugee camp. I now live in southern Oregon, bought my own house, brought my brothers here from Nairobi and they’re in school right now.
I want to do as much as I can for the United States, make the Olympic team and bring the medal to this country where it belongs. But I also want to have my family where they are safe and in a position where they don’t have to go through what I went through.
With the recent independence of South Sudan, many Lost Boys are thinking about returning to help develop the country. Even with an established professional running career, has South Sudan drawn you back?
I have gone back many times to help, but I think the U.S. is the only country where I’m able to have my running career.
The Lost Boys might decide to go back home. People are needed to go back and revive the public and private sector. It’s very important for them to come back and use the skills they acquired and raise the country up a little bit, even if they continue to live here. But the United States is still our home. Most of us have been able to attain degrees. That’s why we are here: to chase the American dream.¡¡
Due to decades of war and disinvestment, South Sudan is in desperate need of rebuilding. What one thing do you think is most important in helping develop the country?
The most important thing I’m focusing on is working with World Vision to bring clean water to South Sudan. As a runner, I drink tons of water every day. I always imagine putting myself in the feet of people who don’t have that for days.
During my journey when I escaped from a prison camp, we went three days and three nights running non-stop and went without water for days. Even in refugee camps when the water wasn’t pumping, we had to stay without. That’s the harsh life of being a refugee. If we can get people clean water, maybe we can reduce the death rate. That’s my way of being able to help.
What do you imagine yourself doing after your career is over?
I want to see people benefit from what I’m doing to give back. I want to see a girl graduate from the high school I built in Southern Sudan, graduate from university, that’s my dream ¡ª to trickle down the blessings that I’ve had and bring them to other people. I also want to be a coach some day. I want to develop young people to be able to see their Olympic dream come through. I love this sport so much that I don’t want to go silent without giving other people the chance to compete on the international level.
What is the most important memory you will take away from your Olympic experience years after your career is over?
When I was a refugee, I didn’t have anything. I owned one pair of shoes, my shorts and a T-shirt. Seven years after I came to this country in 2001, I got to shake the hand of the president of the U.S. and got the chance to carry the American flag at the 2008 Olympics. This country gave me an opportunity to represent them in something that billions and billions of people saw.
You can make it in this country if you believe it and do things right. This country belongs to all of us, whether you’re from Africa or Afghanistan. For me, my dream came true. I think this story belongs to the Lost Boys, who are no longer the Lost Boys ¡ª the lost and found great kids.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.