From Olympian to Alumnus: Former “Lost Boy of Sudan” Lopez Lomong’s Dreams Come True
This story was posted on nau.edu in late 2011, but it is worth repeating in the HRM News log.
Overcoming obstacles, realizing dreams: it’s what Olympic athlete Lopez Lomong does. And at this week's commencement ceremony at the Walkup Skydome, he will add another triumph to his list: becoming a college graduate.
Lomong will walk alongside nearly 2,350 of his peers at the December 16 graduation ceremonies and serve as the Standard Bearer for the W.A. Franke College of Business. This is fitting, as he was the flag bearer for the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony as well.
Lomong says now, three years after competing in his first Olympics, the opportunity to serve as the Standard Bearer at Northern Arizona University represents the last piece in a set of dreams coming true.
"I completed the puzzle,” Lomong said. "I was a flag bearer in the Olympics—in a sporting event—and now I'm a Standard Bearer in the academic world, which is something I always wanted to balance in my life."
From strife to victory
As a Lost Boy of Sudan—a term signifying a group of 20,000 boys who were displaced during the Second Sudanese Civil War—Lomong inherited a life of immeasurable struggle. At six years old, he was kidnapped by rebels who intended to make him a child soldier. He escaped weeks later by running for three days through the African plains until he reached a refugee camp in Kenya, where he stayed for the subsequent 10 years.
His next big move was to the United States. Lopez was adopted by the Rodgers family in New York. The family was moved by an essay Lomong wrote to the Catholic Charities about what he would do given the ability to relocate to the United States. Once here, he began running competitively in high school and, eventually, at Northern Arizona University.
In 2007, Lomong experienced a pinnacle in his personal life and athletic career: He received his American citizen status and became a professional runner. Only a year later, he made the United States' Olympic team, making it to the semi-finals of the 1500m.
Yet before he was a favored Olympian, Lomong was a Hotel & Restaurant Management student and track and field athlete at Northern Arizona University, where he won two NCAA championships and was the vice president of the Student Hospitality National Advisory Board Club. Lopez chose to put his college career on hold when he made the Olympic team and turned professional, but has since returned to complete his degree—a lifelong dream of his.
It's no secret that Flagstaff is a choice location for high-altitude Olympic training, but Lomong chose the location for reasons closer to his heart. "I chose Northern Arizona University because it's a small community where everybody helps each other," Lomong said. "I like that kind of family-oriented, small but not-too-small community.
In addition to the close-knit feel of Flagstaff and its embedded university culture, Lomong said he specifically decided upon Northern Arizona University because of its celebrated Hotel & Restaurant Management (HRM) program.
"We have the best HRM program in the country," Lomong acknowledged. "I didn't want to be in a bigger school. Yes, I could win the NCAA titles, but I wouldn't have those friendships and one-on-one teaching (opportunities) like we do here in Flagstaff. Here, people have been there to see me succeed. They make the difference. That's why I'm here."
Now that he is a college graduate, Lomong is ready to focus on training for the 2012 London Olympic games. He says he is excited to represent a country that offered him the chance for his dreams to come true. "Upon finishing my education ... I have one goal in my mind: to be on that podium to represent our country, and most importantly, Flagstaff and the university," Lomong said.
Once Lomong's athletic career winds down, he of course has many more goals that he is intent on achieving, one of them being to invite his fellow Americans to experience his homeland.
"I would like to help young people. I want to empower them to be athletes," Lomong said. "After that I (want to) use my degree to bring tourism back to southern Sudan, and bring my friends in America to see my country and enjoy the culture."
There is no doubt that life will take Lomong to many different places, but he will always hold a place in his heart for the time he spent in northern Arizona.
"My dreams came true here at Northern Arizona University," Lomong said. "I call myself not only an Olympian, but a Northern Arizona University alumni as well."
Photo: Lopez Lomong shares his story with Northland Preparatory Academy students during their running session at Walkup Skydome.
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