Aug 09 The Race of His Life

Aug. 09, 2008, 1:54 a.m. (ET)

Lopez Lomong's biggest race was a run for his life.

There were no crowds, no medals, no track.

A Sudanese prison camp was in the distance behind him, the Kenyan border was in front of him, and his parents and the home that soldiers stripped him from were only a memory.

Lomong was a scared 6-year-old boy, running with a couple of fellow escapees day and night in their hope to flee prison camp life. For three days they ran, sleeping when they were tired, always laying down in the direction they were running so they wouldn't run the wrong way when they awoke.

Friday night, Lomong didn't run. He walked into Olympic Stadium as the American flag bearer after selected to lead the U.S. team into the Opening Ceremony in a vote of U.S. sports captains Wednesday night. Billions of television viewers worldwide, including his parents back in Sudan, will be told his incredible story - - - a story that begs to be made into a movie.

"As a young kid, I was the happiest kid back in Sudan," Lomong said. "It was great. I had both of my parents around, all my siblings around. We ate before we went to town every day.

"My parents didn't tell me what was going on in the country. They didn't tell me about the war. I was a happy kid just running around and playing games."

Lomong's youthful innocence suddenly became a real-life horror story one Sunday morning when he and his parents sat in their open-air church.

"We were praising God when all of a sudden, the soldiers came in," Lomong said. "They told everyone to lay down. They said, ‘All the kids, outside.'

"I was taken away from my parents. They dragged us to a big truck covered in canvas. "

Lomong and the other children cried out in fear.

"All of a sudden, the truck stopped," Lomong said. "Before they let us out, they blindfolded us. We walked in single file. They took us to a one-room prison. There were no windows. There were about 100 of us there.

"As we entered this hut, they took the cloth out of our eyes and shoved us inside. There were only boys there. We didn't know where the girls were."

The one-room prison was Lomong's home for three weeks. The young boys were given water twice a day. The millet they were fed was mixed with sand to disrupt their digestive systems.

"The more you ate the food, you couldn't digest it in your stomach," Lomong said. "Eventually, it would kill you. There were a lot of kids dying every day."

Three of Lomong's older friends --- he called them his angels --- told him not to eat a lot of the food but to pick out the grain and not eat the whole thing.

"I witnessed a lot of kids who were just sitting there, and they'd go to sleep and never stand up again," Lomong said. "You said, ‘Well, it's his day today. Probably tomorrow will be my day.' It became part of life."

The soldiers' goal was to weed out the weakest youngsters and keep the strongest to be trained to shoot weapons and fight in combat.

But those Sudanese soldiers never got the chance to teach Lomong and his friends. One day, one of them found a hole in the fence, and they planned a midnight escape that same night.

"We went through this door, and then we started crawling," Lomong said. "It was dark. The moon wasn't there. We could see soldiers smoking cigarettes. The more they talked, the more we crawled. When they weren't talking, we stayed still so they didn't hear anything.

"We went through the fence, and my friends dragged me along. We ran three days and three nights."

When they reached the Kenyan border, they were arrested and placed in a refugee camp. It became Lomong's home for 10 years. They ate one meal a day provided by the United Nations and cooked by the older children. The younger ones did daily chores.

"I became happy again," Lomong said. "I thought my parents were already dead. This was my family. These were the only people I had in my life.

"During the day, we'd play soccer, sometimes go for a run ... anything to keep your mind off hunger and food and everything."

His eventual escape from life in a refugee camp would be a letter submitted in a contest run by the U.S. embassy. In his own words, he had to write what he would try to accomplish if given the chance to live in the United States.

"It wasn't guaranteed that you would be given a chance to go into the free world," Lomong said. "I sat down and thought about it. I put everything down on a piece of paper.

"Sometimes, I'd say ‘What do you think this word is in English?' I sent my letter to the U.S. Embassy. Three weeks later, they sent me something that said, ‘Congratulations. You've been picked for an interview."'

Lomong was eventually flown to the U.S., met by his new American foster parents at the New York airport, and he began a new life in Tully, NY. It was a cultural shock.

"I went from living in a tent to living in a house in upstate New York," said Lomong, a U.S. citizen since July, 2007. "I learned how to take a shower ... the cold water and the hot water ... and how to put it in the middle. I was like a little kid again."

Good as life was, Lomong , 23, couldn't forget what life used to be like when he first heard of the Olympics in Kenya eight years ago.

"I didn't even know what the Olympics were," he said. "A lot of guys started talking about the Olympics. They were going to go watch the Olympics that night, and I said, ‘Wow. I'm coming with you.'

"We walked five miles to watch it on black and white TV, the only black and white TV in the area."

When Lomong sat down, the first thing on the screen was one of Michael Johnson's running events.

"He was fast," Lomong said. "I said, ‘I want to be as fast as that guy.' That's what inspired me. I said, ‘I want to run as fast as that guy, and I want to run for that country. I want wear that same uniform.'

"I didn't know what would happen, but I was just so determined. It was so great to see somebody running and a lot of people watching and cheering. Running is what we do all our lives. It's part of our transportation."

Lomong will compete in the 1,500-meter run in Beijing - - his first international competition - - hoping to win and stand on the podium just like Johnson did eight years ago.

"The national anthem went on, and he started crying," Lomong said. "The whole night, I was inspired by that. This guy ran so fast and yet, he can step on the podium and still cry. He won the race and went out there to receive the medal and still cried.

"I got inspired by that, and that's why I knew that I was going to make it to the Olympics one day. I didn't know (for) what country, but here we are."

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