Lopez Lomong was abducted from a Sudanese church at age six and spent the next decade in a refugee camp. He came to the United States in 2001 as part of the Lost Boys of Sudan project. Seven years later, he was carrying the American flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. His is a fascinating and unique American tale.
The middle-distance runner is preparing for the upcoming U.S. trials in a bid to make his second Olympic team. He took some time to talk with Fourth-Place Medal about his journey, his goals for 2012 and what George W. Bush said to him before he carried the flag in China.
Fourth-Place Medal: Olympic trials are a few weeks away. How are preparations going?
Lopez Lomong: They're good. Preparation is going very well. I've put a lot of work in and I'm excited to go out there, toe it up and make that team for London.
FPM: You recently ran the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon. How would you evaluate your performance there?
LL: It went well, according to what I've been focusing on. I haven't started to do any speed work at all and my coach Jerry Schumacher have been working on the base and getting a 61 or 62 for each 400. We've been focusing on the 5,000-meter work, so I think I was very excited to be able to go out there and run 3:35 [in the 1,500]. That will be three weeks to the start of Olympic Trials. It was just getting my legs going and getting my breathing going. Also, I had a little bout with allergies. It's always good to go out there and do well.
FPM: You have this huge goal -- the Olympics. Is it hard to keep focus on getting there in the trials?
LL: USA trials is one of the hardest trials to go through. I think it's better even than the Olympics. It teaches us to be tough as well. Our trials is tough, but it's one of the cleanest. If you're top three, you make the team. We've been trained to focus and have two goals: One goal is the big prize, which is London. The second goal is going out and taking care of your home trials. I'm all ready and I'm excited for it. It's a good challenge.
FPM: Are you going to double with the 1,500 and 5,000 at trials?
LL: Yes, the 5,000 comes first, so I'm putting all those eggs in one basket for that. But I have about two hours between the 5,000 and the heats of the 1,500, so I should be OK. I need to be able to focus on making the team in both those races. We're doubling though.
FPM: You talked about how clean the trials process is. Top three, you're in. Does that make it a more pressure-filled event than the Olympics?
LL: Yes, it's a lot of pressure. We have the deepest field in the United States. Some of the college guys have been sharp -- they have the NCAA championships now -- and they're sharper than us because we only race twice a year. Racing is a lot of obstacles. You might get rolled over, you might get stepped on. You approach it differently. In the Olympics, you have these guys and they're all running fast. It's going to be an easy pace and then with 400 or 600 meters to go, they move. In trials, we go very slow for the first 400 and then we start kicking. If you're not sharp, it's hard to come back and make the team. We have the toughest field to deal with and there's a lot of obstacles that could happen. It's a good challenge.
FPM: How have you improved as a runner since you competed in the Beijing Games in 2008? [Lopong finished 12th in his semifinal heat.]
LL: Very much. I became mature, I've been on the world stage running with those Games. I know how to run a 3:33 and how it feels. It prepared me for running four years professionally and has kept me on my toes. There is no easy race out there, especially with all these Diamond League meets. That racing is very hard. You have to bring your A game all the time. I'm so excited to be able to go out and try for my second Olympic Games.
FPM: In your Tide video, you spoke about how you watched Michael Johnson win gold in 2000 on a black and white TV in Kenya. You spoke of how it was strange to see a man cry. How emotional were you when you entered the stadium in Beijing carrying the flag?
LL: I was very emotional. When I watched that TV in the refugee camp in 2000, eight years later I was in the middle of everything. I can see how Michael cried. He wasn't just running for himself, he was running for something bigger than him. He was running for a flag that was there. He was running for the flag that was raised when the national anthem was played. That's why he cried. When you watch somewhere else, you don't realize why he was crying. When I carried the American flag, it was big like that. The whole country and the whole world was behind me. Billions of people were watching me. And I was just a refugee kid who couldn't tell his story. Now I could tell it to a wider audience. I probably inspired one kid out there who was watching me carry that flag. And it's like, "oh, that's Lopez. He was just here. Now he's carrying the American flag. I can be like that too." Red, white and blue means so much to me. It means an opportunity I was given. It's security and blessings that were given to me. It's so big and I would like to do as much as I can to give back to this country because its given so much to me.
FPM: One thing I've always wondered through years of watching the Opening Ceremony: How heavy is that pole and that flag? You see those weightlifters from Eastern Europe carrying it with one hand like the Incredible Hulk. But it looks heavy to most.
LL: This particular flag was really big. I had the strap that I had the pole in. But before we went out, we had met with the president. He called me back after we took a picture and said, "Lopez, don't let that flag hit the ground." Imagine having your president tell you, don't have that flag touch the ground. That flag was so big and the whole time I'm thinking, "I don't want that flag to come close to the ground." And I look back and see the president waving and cheering on a monitor. It felt like I was carrying the whole country with me.
FPM: I'm sorry to ask because I'm sure you've discussed it 1,000 times, but a couple of weeks ago you won a 5,000-meter race. You thought the race was over a little early and stopped, but still won. Usually when you're running a 5,000 are you always aware of what lap it is? It seems like a lot.
LL: It was my debut and all I wanted to do was run 64s, which is 13:20 pace. The announcer was saying, "two laps to go," and when I heard that, I thought it was where we started. To be able to recover and still run a 60-second lap in the final lap was incredible. I had been training and felt strong.
FPM: What do you normally think about when you're running a race? Are you thinking technique? Strides? Time?
LL: I'm running for joy right now. I used to be running away from people who want to hurt me. I used to be running away from people who want to kidnap me and make me a child solider. I used to be running away from dangerous wilderness. Now every time I go out there, I visualize those flashbacks. Now I have people watching me and I run for joy. I don't care about the fast times. As long as I put everything out there on the line, I just thank God for the opportunity. And I thank the American people for giving me the hope and opportunity to run and inspire others.
FPM: Thanks Lopez. Best of luck in Oregon and London.
LL: Thank you.
Lomong is touring on behalf of Tide, its USOC partnership and the brand's "My Story. Our Flag." project. Fans can share what the red, white and blue mean to them on a specially created application on Tide's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/tide through June 14. Each story will be represented by a swatch of fabric that will be sewn together to create a larger-than-life artistic rendition of the American flag, to be unveiled in New York City on July 3.