At the Big Ten Cross Country Championships in 2018, then-junior Ohio State cross country runner Alex Lomong ran the third-fastest outdoor 800-meter time in program history.
Nearly three decades earlier, his brother Lopez Lomong ran for his life, escaping entrapment as a child soldier in South Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Alex Lomong didn’t meet his older brother until age 9, but the notoriety Lopez gained as a competitive distance runner in the United States allowed Alex to follow in his footsteps, coming to the U.S. to avoid a path in Africa the Lomongs are all too familiar with.
“I hate to say this. I’d probably be dead somewhere,” Alex Lomong said. “I’d probably be a soldier, or, you know, we lost like half my family back in Africa.”
Taken to South Sudan as a child soldier, Lopez Lomong escaped to a refugee camp in Kenya on foot at just 6 years old.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a guerilla movement against the Sudanese government with the goal of gaining South Sudan’s independence from the rest of Sudan, forced children to become soldiers during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005. South Sudan gained its independence in 2011.
“Running was never an option for me,” Lopez Lomong said in an email. “I was running for life and survival throughout my childhood. Running was originally something I did out of fear, but when I came to the U.S., it became a sport of joy for me.”
He was able to move to the U.S. and attend Northern Arizona with the help of missionaries, and said his goal as a collegiate runner at Northern Arizona was to be an Olympian. Eventually, he was able to help set up a better life for his family in Kenya.
In 2008, Lopez Lomong was the official flag bearer for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics. He said he’s never forgotten what he runs for.
“I have always run for the kids that I left behind in South Sudan and in the refugee camp in Kenya,” Lopez Lomong said. “It has been a driving force for what I do.”
Born in a small village in South Sudan, Alex Lomong said his family moved to Kenya shortly after Lopez moved to the U.S. He said he cannot understate his brother’s influence on his own success.
Alex Lomong didn’t meet Lopez until he was already an established professional athlete, at which time Lopez made the journey back to his family’s new home in Juja, Kenya.
Their first interaction was filmed for a segment on HBO’s “Real Sports” series.
“Since I met him in 2007, I always dreamed of bringing him to America to have the same opportunity to chase his dreams,” Lopez Lomong said.
Winston Brown, a teacher in Virginia who watched the documentary, took in Alex Lomong and his older brother Peter in 2009.
Alex Lomong said the adjustment to his new home was a big one.
“Culture shock. Absolutely,” Alex Lomong said. “The first time we landed in D.C., I mean, we get there, it was one of the coldest things I’ve ever experienced. New environment.”
Both Alex and Peter Lomong attended Fork Union Military Academy for middle and high school and followed in Lopez’s footsteps as distance runners.
“I just grinded,” Alex Lomong said. “I knew that I had to get a scholarship, some way.”
After 13 state titles and two All-America nods, Alex Lomong earned a scholarship to Ohio State.
Both he and cross country head coach Khadevis Robinson said being away from Peter and Lopez gave him the chance to create his own story.
“It’s an interesting dynamic because he has two older brothers who are extremely good,” Robinson said. “Coming here gave him an opportunity to become himself.”
Alex Lomong hasn’t visited his family since 2009, he said. He and Lopez are both fighting to move whatever family they can to the U.S.
“Refugees, soldiers coming in, shooting up villages. It’s just me, Peter, Lopez, my mom, my sister,” Alex Lomong said. “We lost my dad. We’re trying to get them over here. They just got iPhones [in Kenya], so they have WhatsApp on there now.”
Lopez Lomong and his wife are in the process of adopting their niece Angelina, 8, and nephew David, 5, from Kenya. He said family, especially his two brothers, are a driving factor in his life.
“My relationship with my brothers is precious to me,” Lopez Lomong said. “I see so much hope and potential in them, and it is such an inspiration for me to watch them grow into proud young men.”
After his difficult childhood, Alex Lomong has found success running — he was the Buckeyes’ top finisher in the 2018 Big Ten Cross Country Championships, with one of the top 800-meter times in Ohio State track and field history.
This year, he’s ready for an improved senior season.
“I think I’m much fitter this year. I dealt with a lot of injuries [last season], and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do whatever I can to reach my highest potential,’” Alex Lomong said.
The men’s cross country team is looking to bounce back from a rocky 2018 campaign, during which it finished No. 11 out of 12 teams at the Big Ten championships. Robinson said he is hopeful that this year’s cross country team will be in the top half of the Big Ten. Alex Lomong will be no small part of their redemption, Robinson said.
“For cross, he should be one of our top fives,” Robinson said. “To be quite honest with you, he should be one of our top three or four.”
As for life after college, Alex Lomong said he plans to run professionally, and the 2020 Olympics are his first goal. He said he’s happy his journey led him to Ohio State, and his roots in Africa have allowed him to reflect on how important family his.
“[Lopez] has done a lot for me and my brother,” Alex Lomong said. “I want to do something for myself here. Make my name big at Ohio State.”