EUGENE, Oregon — Many athletes heading for the London Olympics have overcome adversity. Top African-born distance runner Lopez Lomong, a one-time "Lost Boy" of Sudan, is one of them.
The 27-year-old athlete has spent the past decade making a new life for himself in the United States. He relocated to the northwestern city of Portland, Oregon, last year and hopes to leverage Olympic success into greater aid and attention for his homeland.
Lomong started running when he was six and didn't stop for three days and nights as he escaped from rebel soldiers during Sudan's civil war. Lomong and thousands of other refugee kids became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan."
Many were eventually resettled in the United States as teenagers. Lomong was 16 when he arrived in 2001. Six years later, he became an American citizen.
"I'm just so thankful to the American people for opening their hands," he says.
Lomong is now a professional runner. Early last year, he moved from Arizona to suburban Portland to join an elite training group sponsored by the sports apparel giant, Nike. Six distance runners from that group, including Lomong, have now qualified for the London Games.
"I am happy to have a group of guys who are working every single day to be able to be on this podium and make the team and go on to represent this great country," Lomong says.
This will be his second trip to the Olympics. At the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China, Lomong was eliminated in the semifinals of the 1,500 meter run. That year, his teammates found his story and personality so compelling, they elected him to be the U.S. flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, last month, Lomong finished third in the 5,000 meter race, in a furious sprint to the finish.
Lomong's tight squeeze into the top three made for some nervous moments for his sponsors and non-profit partners.
One of the people cheering in the stands was Steve Haas, vice president of the Christian relief group World Vision, based in suburban Seattle.
"I, like so many people here, want so badly for this guy to succeed," Haas says. "He represents more than just a single athlete trying to win glory in a single sport. He really does carry the country... himself, the greatness of the United States on his shoulders, but the hopes and dreams of many people of South Sudan as well."
Lomong is lending his celebrity to World Vision’s efforts to raise money for its hunger relief, health and water projects in South Sudan. Next January, he and Haas have plans to fly to east Africa.
"The whole goal is to get a good look at what World Vision is doing in such a way that he can come back and tell the story about not only what the organization is doing, but also the specific needs of his own country," Haas says.
Haas describes World Vision as the biggest international relief agency on the ground in South Sudan. The country won its independence just one year ago, but ongoing ethnic conflicts and poor harvests continue to plague the new nation.
Lomong hopes to make a positive difference in this situation.
His partnership with the charity has already raised $150,000 for its South Sudan projects, with relatively little publicity so far.