Athletes going to the London Olympics commonly have stories of overcoming adversity. But few can top African-born distance runner Lopez Lomong. The one time "Lost Boy" of Sudan relocated to the Portland area last year. He runs for Team USA, but hopes to leverage Olympic success into greater aid and attention for his former homeland.
When you tune into the Olympics on TV over the next few weeks, you're bound to see Lopez Lomong. If nothing else because he features prominently in commercials. Visa sums up Lomong's complicated life story in less than 30 seconds.
The commercial begins with the voice of actor Morgan Freeman. "Lopez Lomong started running when he was six and he didn't stop for three days and nights as he escaped life as a child soldier ..."
Freeman describes Lomong's escape from rebel soldiers during Sudan's long and bloody civil war. Lomong and thousands of other refugee kids became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." Many were eventually resettled in the U.S. as teenagers. Lomong became an American citizen in 2007.
"I'm just so thankful to the American people for opening their hands," Lomong says.
The 27-year-old is now a professional runner. Early last year, Lomong moved from northern Arizona to suburban Portland to join an elite training group sponsored by the Nike company. Six distance runners from that group, including Lomong, have now qualified for the London Games.
"I am happy to have a group of guys who are working every single day to be able to be on this podium and make the team and go on to represent this great country."
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene in June, Lomong finished third in the men's 5000 meter race in a furious sprint to the finish.
Lomong's tight squeeze into the top three made for some nervous moments for his sponsors and non-profit partners. One of them cheering in the stands was Steve Haas, vice president of the Christian relief group World Vision, based in suburban Seattle.
"I, like many of the people here, want so badly for this guy to succeed," Haas says. "He represents more than just a single athlete trying to win glory in a single sport. He really does carry the country ... himself, the greatness of the United States on his shoulders, but the hopes and dreams of many people in South Sudan as well."
Lomong is lending his celebrity to World Vision to help it raise money for hunger relief, education, health and water projects in South Sudan. The country won its independence a year ago, but ongoing ethnic conflicts and poor harvests continue to plague the people there.
Next January, Lomong and Haas plan to fly to east Africa.
"This is going to be one of those rare cases where instead of an athlete saying, no matter how well he does, 'I'm going to Disneyland,' we're actually going to South Sudan," Haas says. "The whole goal is to get a good look at what World Vision is doing in such a way that he can come back and tell the story about not only what the organization is doing, but also the specific needs of his own country."
But for now, Lomong is focused on how to beat a highly competitive field in the 5k at the London Olympics. He was previously a 1500 meter specialist, but moved up in distance this year.
"I'm not used to that, but I do have speed and also some endurance," Lomong says. "I'm just going to go out and see how the race is going to go. Again, London has the same weather as here. I've been training here in Portland and it's raining all the time. So I'll be ready to go!"
This is Lopez Lomong's second trip to the Olympics. In 2008, his teammates found his story and personality so compelling, they selected him to be the U.S. flag bearer at the Beijing Opening Ceremony.
The men's 5000 meters races are scheduled during the latter half of the London Games. Prelims take place on August 8 and the final is set for August 11.