No Big Sky Conference athlete’s story has received as much national attention in recent years than the journey of Lopez Lomong. Lomong’s story comes in at No. 19 on the Big Sky Conference’s “50 Greatest Men’s Moments” in celebration of the conference’s 50th anniversary.
A “Lost Boy of Sudan,” Lomong rose from near death in Africa to an NCAA national championship at Northern Arizona, to an American Olympic hero. In 2008, he carried the United States flag at the opening ceremonies in at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
Lomong was born in 1985 in Kimotong, Sudan. At the age of six, during a church service, he was taken at gun-point by armed soldiers. As a young prisoner, he endured weeks of harsh captivity and was given only the option to become a child soldier or try to survive the one-room prison where scores of young boys slept, lived and died from dysentery.
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“I saw kids dying every day and I would say, ‘OK, maybe next time it’s going to be me,’” Lomong told CNN in 2012. “That basically changed my life and from that moment, I’m no longer six years old, I became an adult.”
A young fan of the game of soccer, Lomong first learned of the Olympics in the summer of 2000 when he watched American Michael Johnson run on a small black and white TV at a farmer’s home and his dream to run in the Olympics originated.
In 2001, not long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lomong moved to upstate New York with Rob and Barbara Rogers. Soon, Lomong was a standout for the Tulley High School cross country team, not long after putting on a pair of running shoes for the first time in his life. Lomong competed in the prestigious Foot Locker Cross Country Championship, and then enrolled at Norfolk State University before transferring to Northern Arizona University because he believed Flagstaff’s high altitude training would help prepare him to become a world-class athlete.
While at Northern Arizona, Lomong won the 3,000 meters at the 2007 NCAA indoor championship and the 1,500 meters at the 2007 NCAA outdoor championship on top of the numerous Big Sky Championships. This was just the springboard to even bigger goals. Before he could achieve his goal of running at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Lomong had to become a United States citizen, which he would on July 4, 2007.
Despite numerous physical setbacks, Lomong finally punched his ticket to the Beijing Games by placing third in the 1,500 at the Olympic trials. But as if competing in the Olympics was not enough in itself, while in Beijing, Lomong learned that he was selected by the other American athletes to carry the flag at the opening ceremony, which wound up being one of the most-watched events in television history.
“It’s more than a dream,” Lomong said in an interview with The Associated Press moments after he got the news. “I keep saying, I’m not sure if this is true or not true. I’m making the team and now I’m the first guy coming to the stadium and the whole world will be watching me carry the flag. There are no words to describe it.”
Despite competing for the United States in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, Lomong’s biggest moment, in his opinion, came on Dec. 16, 2011 when he earned his degree from NAU in hotel and restaurant management. Lomong would lead the entire Franke College of Business into the ceremony as the standard bearer for the school, reprising his Olympic role.
“Winning a gold medal in London will not feel better than the weight of that folder in my hand,” Lomong wrote in his book, “Running for My Life.” “I floated on across the stage, shaking hands with the other faculty members. Even though I knew my real degree was not yet in the folder, I instinctively kissed it. Then I held it up toward heaven, just as I hold up my arms after winning a big race. This was bigger than any race I’d ever run.”
Last month, as the Northern Arizona soccer team was competing at the Big Sky Soccer Championship in Hillsboro, Ore., Lomong was right there to root on his Lumberjacks. Now 27 years of age, Lomong is entering the prime of his career for a world-class distance runner. He is sponsored by Nike, and lives and trains in Oregon where he has his sights set on competing in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.