Olympic-sized opportunity


LOMONG_Lopez_BWLost Boy athlete looks to use Olympics to raise awareness about Darfur genocide

by luke eggleston
Sun staff writer

In 2001, the Lost Boys of Sudan arrived in the U.S. and the first phase of their long run from the horrors of their homeland’s civil war was fading in the distance.

For one local Lost Boy, however, the year marked the beginning of a new run, both literally and figuratively.

In August, Lopez Lomong, a parishioner at St. Leo’s Church in Tully, will have an opportunity to reach the pinnacle of his sport when he competes in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

Lomong qualified for the 1,000-meter run Friday, July 4, by finishing third at a competition in Eugene, Ore.

Upon qualifying, Lomong promptly called his foster parents, Barb and Rob Rogers of Tully, and told them, “When you put God first in your life, anything is possible.”

When Lomong arrived in Central New York, he was immediately welcomed into the home of the Rogers family.

Lomong enrolled in Tully High School’s summer school program and shortly thereafter began running cross-country and indoor and outdoor track and field.

After graduating from Tully High School, Lomong went to Norfolk State University in Virginia where he competed on the team’s NCAA Division 1 track and field team. Lomong then transferred to Northern Arizona University. He transferred because he believed Northern Arizona’s program would improve his chances of realizing a dream of competing in the Olympics.

Jim Paccia coached Lomong for three years. With a New York State Class C Championship, Tully already boasted one of the top cross country programs in Section 3. Paccia said that Lomong and teammate Dominic Luka catapulted the Black Knights into a new orbit of success.

“Before Lopez and Dominic got here we already had a good program,” Paccia said. “But they took us to a whole new level.”

Lomong earned nine varsity letters at Tully and was named team captain during all three of his years at the school. He also finished 20th in the Footlocker Nationals, holds several school records in cross country, holds the Section 3 record in the indoor mile event with a time of 4:10.12 and led Tully’s 4×400 and 4×800-meter relay teams to state titles.

Beyond his athletic prowess on the track and cross-country course, Lomong’s exemplary drive inspired his teammates, according to Paccia.

“Lopez’s drive was internal. All the other guys on the team realized that and they stepped it up,” said Paccia. When runners complained about a particularly challenging run, Paccia said he reminded them about Lomong’s own struggles in Sudan.

At age six, Lomong and other children in his village were abducted by militia but he escaped through a hole in the  camp wall and fled to Kenya where he was arrested and placed in a refugee camp. Finally, at age 16, Lomong was selected for relocation to the U.S.

Paccia said Lomong described his escape from the Sudanese camp and then seeing his name among those chosen who would be brought to the U.S. as “his two signs from God.”

“He thought he was dead in that camp,” Paccia said. “When he saw his name on that list and knew that he was going [to a new] home, that was a turning point.”

Barb Rogers said that when Lomong was abducted, he lost contact with his family and presumed they had died. Recently, however, Lomong was able to contact his biological parents. Rogers said he is determined to help them now. In addition to competing for the U.S. in the upcoming Olympics, Lomong has been a member of Team Darfur, a coalition of international athletes committed to raising awareness about the genocide occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“When we were in Africa, we didn’t know what was there for us as kids — we just ran,” Lopez said on his Web site www.lopezlomong.org. “God was planning all of this stuff for me, and I didn’t know. Now I’m using running to get the word out about how horrible things were back in Sudan during the war. Sometimes these things are not on CNN, so if I put out the word, I hope people can get the information. Right now, similar terrible things are going on in Darfur; people are running out of Darfur, and I put myself in their shoes.”

In addition to coaching Lomong, Paccia, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Church in Otisco, was also his confirmation teacher. While he lived in Tully, Lomong was very active in the parish community, Paccia said, and God played a pivotal role in his life.

“He’s an amazing kid,” Paccia said. “He’s so thankful just for life. I remember he was in church every Sunday.”

St. Leo’s will host a fund raiser Wednesday, Aug. 6, in an effort to finance a trip to Beijing for his family and friends. The Lopez Lomong Support Team Fund-raising Barbecue will be held in St. Leo’s parish hall, 10 Onondaga St., Tully, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The cost will $5 for individuals or a maximum of $15 for families. For more information, call Eileen Baldassarre at (315) 882-8319.

The first round of the men’s 1,500-meter run event will be held Aug. 15. Those wishing to watch Lomong should check their local listings.

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