Eventually, in 1989, he re-connected with his parents and normalcy returned. At 13 he was back in school and competed at 400, 800, 1,500 and 3,000 meters. He won every race he entered even though from 1989 to 1994 he was still running barefoot. “The first running shoes I had came a month before the Junior Worlds,” he continues. “It was kind of funny because when I put on my shoes I felt like my foot was so heavy. I felt like I had pounds of mud at the end of my legs.”
At the age of 17 he boarded an airplane for the very first time and flew to Portugal to compete in the Junior Worlds. “I remember having electricity for the first time,” he says. “I could not see the stars at night because of the lights in the city. In my village, you always have access to the stars in the sky.
To compete in the qualifying event back in Uganda. Achon had no way to get to the meet so he jogged 20 miles to the site of the meet on Thursday, then he won the 800 and the 1550 on Friday.
In December of 1994 he came to the United States for the first time and was offered a college scholarship to George Mason in Fairfax, Virginia. “I came in the winter and saw snow for the very first time,” he laughs. “I thought it was white rice falling from the sky.”
He never told the people around him about the kidnapping or of his time as a rebel hostage. “I kept silent because I didn’t want people to know,” he says. But by 2006 word had gotten out, especially when Achon adopted 11 orphans. Yep, you heard right. 11 orphans “I found them on a morning run,” he says. “They were sleeping on a side street. I spoke to them and asked what they were doing there. They told me that there parents had been killed and they had nowhere to live. I spoke to my father and told him that I wanted to help these kids when I went back to the United States.”
He and his wife Grace adopted the 11 children and the $20,000 he receives for being an assistant coach with the Nike Running Project is supporting the 11 orphans plus Achon’s family, a grand total of 25. He felt he needed to do something, especially after his mother and uncle were killed by the rebels before the 2004 Olympics. The loss of his mother ate away at Julius. “I didn’t have a single night’s sleep for a full year,” he insists. “I would stay awake and just think about her.”
His father, brothers and sisters live together with the eleven orphans along with the cook Achon hired to make sure there are good meals in the home. He figures he is spending $600 per month on food and another $30 per month for the cook.
The youngest of the orphans is now seven and the oldest is 18. “They all call each other brother and sister,” says Achon. “Everyone is from a different family, but they are now their own family. One of the boys didn’t know even what his name was, so we decided to name him Julius after me.”
He is 31 years old now and will be 32 in December. He hurt his back in a car accident in 2007 which curtailed his training enough to make it impossible for him to make his third Olympic team in 2008, this time at 5,000 meters. He has worked with Alberto Salazar for over three years and loves what he does.
Julius Achon is one of the good guys, someone who sees people in need and, in his effortless style, simply does what it takes to make their lives better. He may never be rich when it comes to finances, but when it comes to giving back he is one of the wealthiest men around.
Bob Babbitt is the founder and editor-in-chief of Competitor Magazine.