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Excerpt: Running For My Life, “Thank You America”

Lost Boy Lopez Lomong's journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games.

Lost Boy Lopez Lomong’s journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games.

This excerpt reprinted with permission from Thomas Nelson Publishing. Buy the book here.

The second injury of my career came ten minutes before the biggest race of my life. I never saw it coming. Over the previous three days I sailed through the first two rounds of the 1,500 meter Olympic trials even after running three 800 meter races in the days leading up to the first round. My body felt strong. My pulled hamstring felt so good when I ran that I almost forgot I’d injured it. From time to time it would tighten up, but Dr. Wharton always made me good as new. Even Coach Hayes had calmed down a little after watching me run in the semifinal race. My performance finally convinced him that running the 800 meter final did not blow my chance to make the Olympic team in the 1500. We were one heat away He actually appeared relaxed.

The day of the finals, I was out in the infield grass stretching from side to side when the first call for the 1500 came. I made my way toward the reporting area by doing long strides to finish my stretching. If not for my leg injury, I might have sat down to stretch, but I didn’t want to take a chance on my hamstring tightening up. Once I finished my long strides, I planned to have Dr. Wharton do a quick rubdown right before the race to make sure the hamstring was good and loose. I went through the same routine before every race. now that I was in the final, I saw no point in changing anything.

I took my first couple of long strides. My legs felt great. Then I took my third. My right foot came down on what appeared to be a normal patch of grass. I never saw the small hole into which my foot dropped. I came down on it awkwardly, twisting my ankle on the same leg that had the bad hamstring. Pain shot up my leg. I tried to jog it out, but i couldn’t put any weight on my right foot.

“Second call, 1500 meter men’s final,” the track announcer said. I saw Coach Hayes on the opposite side of the track, but I avoided him. If he saw me limping, he might shatter his cell phone on the ground.

I headed straight to Dr. Wharton. “I have a problem.” “What happened? Is it your hamstring?” he asked. “No. My hammy feels great, but I twisted my ankle in a hole while doing strides.” I spoke very softly so no one else could hear. The race was about to start, and I could hardly walk. I didn’t want anyone else to know.

“Oh no. Are you serious? Here, lay down. Let me see what i can do.” He grabbed my foot and made a couple of adjustments.

“Third call, 1500 meter men’s final.”

Coach Hayes walked over to me. He had a puzzled look on his face. “What are you doing, Lopez? Time to report for the race. Why are you laying down now?”

“He twisted his ankle,” Dr. Wharton said.

Coach Hayes hid the anxiety. He could not let the injury get to my head. We both knew Dr. Phil was the best at what he did. “Keep focused on the race plan, Lopez. Remember all of the different plans we dis- cussed. you know when to make your move.” It was almost that point where he turned me loose. He looked concerned about my ankle but kept me focused on the race plan.

“I’m fine now, Coach,” I said. I stood up. The ankle still did not feel right, but I had to go report for the race. They weren’t going to delay the finals until my ankle healed.

I grabbed my backpack and my uniform and started over toward the track. As I walked I prayed, God, I know You gave me this dream for something bigger than myself. You’ve done too many impossible things in my life so far for me to believe that You want my dream to end like this.

I took another step. The pain in my ankle disappeared. I took another couple of steps. My ankle felt like I’d never run a race in my life, much less five in the past six days. I ran a couple of strides.

Coach Hayes looked calmly at me. “Go run the race we planned” he said.

“Yep. See you at the finish line.”

I handed Coach Hayes my backpack and went over to the reporting station. As I walked up, I heard a couple of coaches talking. “Yeah, Lopez is injured,” one said.

“What the heck was he thinking running all those races? He blew his chances,” said another.

“Excuse me,” I said as I squeezed past them to the reporting desk. They looked at me like they’d seen a ghost. Their shock quickly turned to relief. With me hurt, their guys had an easier path to Beijing. I gave them a slight smile. I knew something they didn’t know.

After reporting, I took my place on the start line. Pure joy washed over me. This is the moment I’ve been dreaming about for eight years. Kakuma to Tully to Norfolk, Flagstaff to Colorado Springs, and now here, Eugene, Oregon. This is the place. My dream is about to come true!

“Go, Lopez!” someone yelled from the crowd. I smiled and looked up in the stands. There was Melissa, my friend who brought me photographs of my mother. She wore a red shirt that said, “Run fast, Lopepe,” in Swahili. Brittany sat near her. I thought about all the laps the two of us had run together in Colorado Springs getting ready for today. She smiled a huge smile at me. Oh what a wonderful moment this was. I was not running from bullets or away from hunger. no, this was the ultimate moment of running for pure joy.

“Runners, to your marks . . . Get set . . .” The gun sounded. I took off. This was the moment about which I’d dreamed for so long. I planned to enjoy it.

The first two laps went according to my game plan. Stay alert on the first lap, close to the front, eyes all around for anyone who trips, conserve energy for the end. Get in position on lap two. I ran my race. Toward the end of the second lap, I moved to within striking distance of the leaders, while remaining just far enough outside to keep from getting boxed in. The pace picked up on the third lap. I moved closer to the front, ready to strike. The hamstring felt great, no pain in my ankle. God performed a miracle on my leg; there is no other explanation.

We rounded the turn and headed up the straightaway for the bell lap, the final four hundred meters that stood between twelve runners and the United States Olympic Team. Up ahead I saw my cheering section in the stands. All of them stood, screaming my name. I moved up to third position, right where I needed to be.

All of a sudden, I felt a push on my back. I looked to my side. Someone had pushed the guy running next to me, and he fell into me. Everyone in the front pack stumbled and looked ready to fall. My feet flew awkwardly. I struggled to keep my balance while trying to avoid the runners stumbling around me. All of us were on the verge of hitting the ground. Lopez, it’s good. Just run, I heard God say to me. My feet came back under me. no one fell. The bell sounded. Time to grab the dream.

Lap four of the 1,500 is the “God, help me” lap. He already had. I took off around the first turn. I was right where I wanted to be to start my kick at the 300-meter mark. My eyes were open, but I felt like I was running in a dream. For You, God, and the kids I left behind, I prayed as i ran. Eight years earlier I wrote an essay as a prayer to God. Now I ran my prayer.

Three hundred meters to go. I started my kick. This was my opportunity to make my dream a reality. This was the moment about which I’d talked to anyone who would listen since I landed in America. I moved toward the front. I was close enough that I thought I would not just qualify for the Olympic team; I had a chance to win this race.

Two hundred meters to go. The final curve. I pushed my body harder than I had in any race in my life. I dug down for every last reserve of strength within me. everyone was in their kick. “Lopepe, run fast!” I heard from the stands. With 150 meters to go, in the middle of the curve, running as hard as I could, my hamstring tightened with a yank. Pain shot up my leg and covered my body. “Not now. Not this. Oh God, hear my prayers.”

I fell back. Runners passed me. I could not run full speed. More runners passed me, taking my Olympics with them.

I ran out of the curve and onto the final straightaway. Coach Hayes always told me races are won and lost in the final one hundred meters. I pushed, but my body did not respond. My leg hurt and my body wanted to give in to the pain.

Ninety meters to go. Eighty-nine. Eighty-eight. I fell farther behind.

Then something remarkable happened, something I cannot explain. At the eighty-seven-meter mark, a burst of energy came over me and overwhelmed the pain in my leg. My feet flew. I passed one runner, then another. The crowd jumped to their feet, screaming, but I didn’t hear anything except the beating of my heart and my feet on the track. Up ahead I saw the first guy cross the tape, winning the race. I did not need to win to make the team. My goal was the top three. A second runner crossed the line. Two spots were taken. The finish line was right in front of me. With one final burst of speed, I passed the last runner as I crossed the line in third place.

I fell to the ground, overjoyed. Up above, my friends chanted my name. I made the sign of the cross. “Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You did this, not me!” I may have run the race, but He was the One who healed my hamstring and my ankle and the One who gave me the power to make that final push. I got up and ran over to the guys who finished first and second. All three of us wore wide smiles. This was an unbelievable moment. “Congratulations,” I told them.

“You, too, Lopez. We’re going to Beijing!”

Later, the three of us made our way to the podium for the victory ceremony. Along the way I signed one autograph after another. People shook my hand. Others patted me on the back. “Congratulations, Lopez! Great race.” At the podium i was asked if I wanted to say anything. “Thank you, America,” I said. “Thank you.” That pretty much summed up everything in my heart.

Here I was, a former lost boy. Not only did America open up and give me a home, but now I had the privilege of representing her on a world stage. Like Michael Johnson, I would soon run with the letters USA across my chest. I could not help but wonder if there would be another boy out there without hope who would see me run. Perhaps he would see me and know his dreams could come true.

I left the podium and made my way through the crowd. More people crowded in for autographs. I signed as many as I could. Then I looked over and saw a small boy. He could not get through the crowd to get close to me. He reminded me of me many years before when the strong boys pushed me out of the way on Tuesdays at the garbage dump in Kakuma. Our eyes met. “Can I have your shoes?” he shouted.

“Sure, kid,” I replied. I pulled my shoes off, signed the sides with a pen, and tossed them to him. His father broke out in tears. “Enjoy,” i said.

“Thank you!” the boy yelled back.

I walked on through the crowd, barefoot. Somehow, it only seemed right to walk away from the biggest race of my life without shoes. After all, that’s how I learned to run. Melissa ran over to greet me. Her parents were with her. All of them cried. Brittany found me in the crowd. We hugged. “you did it,” she said.

I smiled. I could hardly talk. The dream had come true. After all the chaos died down, I went over to the medical tent for the post-race drug test. Afterward, Dr. Wharton took me, Brittany, Coach Hayes, and our friends out in a limo to celebrate. We drove around Eugene celebrating. One of the therapists shouted “Nihao, Beijing.” I don’t know why he did, but before long all of us were shouting it, even Coach Hayes.

“How’s the ankle feel?” he asked.

I had to stop and think for a moment. I hadn’t thought about the ankle since the gun sounded for the start of the race. “Perfect,” I said.

“Unbelievable,” he replied.

I smiled. “Yes it is,” I said. “Unbelievable” pretty much described my journey from Sudan to Kakuma to the black-and-white, car-battery-powered television to America and now this. Unbelievable and impossible, except for the God who makes all things possible.

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