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Lopez Lomong: From war child to U.S. Olympics star

From Jessica Ellis, CNN
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lopez Lomong is a former "Lost Boy" from Sudan who now runs for Team USA
  • Lomong spent 10 years of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya
  • He was relocated in the United States as a teenager and became a U.S. citizen in 2007
  • In 2008 he was picked to carry the American flag at Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing

Editor's note: African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- From escaping bullets in Sudan as a young boy to becoming a track and field Olympics star, U.S. athlete Lopez Lomong has been running and defying odds nearly all of his life.

Lomong, who carried the American flag into the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, was among the thousands of refugees known as "The Lost Boys," victims of Sudan's long and brutal civil war.

At the age of six, Lomong, who qualified Wednesday for the 5,000-meter final at the London Games on August 11, was separated from his family when he was kidnapped by soldiers during a Sunday morning mass in his native country. Lomong was taken along with several other children to a prison where they would be trained to become child soldiers.

"I saw kids dying every day and I would say, 'OK, maybe next time it's going to be me,'" remembers Lomong, 27. "That basically changed my life and from that moment I'm no longer six years old -- I became an adult."

But a few weeks later Lomong managed to escape from the prison camp with the help of three older abducted children. Barefoot but determined, Lomong and his friends went a through a hole in the prison fence and started running as fast as they could, in what Lomong describes as their "race to freedom."

After running for three days and nights the boys finally reached Kenya, where Lomong spent the next 10 years of his life in a refugee camp.

Runner Lopez Lomong was the flag bearer of the U.S. Olympic team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Runner Lopez Lomong was the flag bearer of the U.S. Olympic team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
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U.S. athlete Lopez Lomong seeks London Olympic glory U.S. athlete Lopez Lomong seeks London Olympic glory

In 2001, Lomong's remarkable life journey took another turn. Aged 16, he was among the nearly 4,000 "Lost Boys" who were resettled in various cities across the United States as part of a U.N. and U.S. government program.

Read more: Former 'Lost Boy' runs boot camps for business

He was adopted by a family in Tully, a small town in upstate New York, where he went to high school and first started thinking of running as a career.

How Michael Johnson inspired war child
Sudan child soldier turned U.S. Olympian

He became a U.S. citizen in July 2007 and one year later he made the national Olympics team, taking part in the 1,500-meter race in Beijing. Lomong didn't make it to the finals but was honored by his fellow athletes who selected him as the as flag bearer for Team USA.

"That is the most incredible thing I take away from the Olympics," he says. "It's not only track and field. There are swimmers; there are wrestlers; there is everybody united and we are all walking together to bring as many medals to our country. Those are the things that I will never forget -- I was very excited to be part of that and carry America's flag into the opening ceremony."

I don't want to be a flag bearer anymore, I want to bring the medal back home.
Lopez Lomong

This week, he returns to the Olympics for the second time. This time his goal is to achieve Olympic glory.

"I want to go back to do what I didn't do in 2008," says Lomong, a graduate of Northern Arizona University. "I want to win the medal. Yes, I was a flag bearer in 2008; I don't want to be a flag bearer anymore, I want to bring the medal back home."

See also: Nigeria's first Olympic canoeist

Determined to win a medal for his adopted country, Lomong is also focused on making a difference in South Sudan. He has established a foundation in his name to help people in his native country, focusing on four pressing issues.

"We need to be able to go back and give these people education, clean water, nutrition, medicine," says Lomong, who also reunited with his family in South Sudan in 2007. "To live, to see another day, to think there is someone out there in the world caring for them so they can be able to pursue their dream."

Lomong has also written a book, called "Running for My Life: One Lost Boy's Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games," where he narrates his long and epic life journey.

See also: Sudan's 'Lost Boys' reunited with the past

He wants to share his inspiring story with the world so that people know where he comes from and understand why he is running.

"I want to be the one telling that story to the people who never had a voice before because there are a lot of kids out there right now that are still going through the things I went through. They are still getting kidnapped. They are still going hungry for days, they don't have families," he says.

"We need to be able to tell the world to stop those things and let's educate kids instead of giving them AK-47s to go to fight. Let the kids go and play [and] do anything they need to do to be able to see their future."

London 2012 highlights: Catch up with what you missed

Olympics in pictures: The best photos from London 2012

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