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

Lopez Lomong about to embark on his Olympic journey in the 1,500m final at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Photo: PhotoRun.net

“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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