In today's sports world overflowing with complaining athletes, American track and field star Lopez Lomong is a breath of fresh air.
Hearing him talk about the sport, the child-like pure passion for running he has makes you want to drop your remote and get out of your La-Z-Boy.
"I'm always smiling and I'm happy," Lomong said, telling his life story and explaining outreach initiatives to a full house at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia last week. "Putting the shoes on and lining up is great. There is so much I can't fuss about. Someone is not coming for me with a bullet. I'm not running in the jungle. I am running for the joy, the fans and my country."
Perseverance breeds passion. But there is perseverance and then there is Lomong.
Born in southern Sudan, he was taken from his family at the age of 6 during the second Sudanese Civil War. Imprisoned with other boys for 3 weeks, living in deplorable conditions, he escaped with others, who literally ran for their lives. They would become known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan."
Ending up at a refugee camp in Kenya, Lomong's life would change after writing an essay about his goals if he were a citizen of the United States. Officials were moved, allowing him to come to this country and live with a foster family in Tully, N.Y. He went on to earn All-America honors at Northern Arizona University, winning the NCAA indoor 3,000-meter and outdoor 1,500-meter titles in 2007.
Despite the whirlwind of change, Lomong has not forgotten from where he came. Seeing the 22-year war's effect on his native village of Kimotong, he has started a project to build a church there. The project is part of the Sudan Sunrise Movement, which fosters positive relationships between Americans, southern Sudanese Christians, Darfurian Muslims and all Sudanese. It is the same movement championed by Sudan native Manute Bol, the former NBA player who died last Saturday.
Darfurian Muslims have a huge role with the church project. This is a sign of change, since the Darfurians were used by the government to attack the southern Sudanese when Lomong was a child. The church is fittingly named Kimotong Reconciliation Church. Lomong expects the church to be finished this fall.
The audience at the Racquet Club seemed to be astonished by Lomong's spirit. He is hoping to raise up the next generation of "runners for life."
"This is going to be a place where anybody can pray, and also a school," he said. "Running is my great weapon and I want to use that for people. It's really a pleasure to be here. I thank the American people for their kindness and generosity."
The 25-year-old Lomong credits his dark past for the luminous future of his native village.
"The great people of America helped me out," he said. "I know that God always protects me. I think everything happens for a reason. If I was not taken away, I would have never come to America."
Lomong also has his sights set on the year 2012. After carrying the flag for the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the middle-distance runner is ready to win gold, something that he's wanted to do ever since he watched Michael Johnson's performance in 2000 at Sydney on a fuzzy black-and-white screen in Kenya. New Line Cinema is also developing a biopic of "The Lost Boy," set to hit theaters right before the Olympics.
For Lomong, there would be no better scene then to be around his natural parents, Awei Lomong and Rita Namana, and his American parents, Rob and Barbara Rogers, for the first time when Reconciliation is completed.
"I'm trying to get them together and meet maybe at the opening ceremonies of the church," Lomong said. "That would be nice."