The 2005 track season found Lopez at NAU. That season he ran the 800 almost exclusively. In the 2006 track season, he ran a little bit of everything – the 800, relays, an occasional 400, and the 4-by-400 relay. The goal of Coach Hayes was to find out which event suited Lopez the best.
Toward the end of the 2006 season, he ran the 1500 in a dual meet and in the conference meet. This event, though a tactical event, was exactly what Lopez was best suited for. He chose to enter this event at the NCAA championships.
The first lap of the 1500 doesn’t count for anything. Rabbits sprint to an early lead but they never last. “Relax, relax, relax,” Lopez could hear the voice of Coach Hayes in his head.
He rounded the first turn at a pace he liked. The leader did not take off like a rabbit, nor did he hold back and make the race too slow. Lopez trotted along through the first lap, right in the middle of the pack. The leader ran the first lap in just over fifty-eight seconds. Lopez ran it in sixty. “This feels good,” he thought.
Before the first turn of the second lap, Lopez sped up, moving from sixth to fourth. The overall place did not matter as much as the distance he wanted to keep between himself and the leader. The second lap is all about positioning oneself. No one has ever won the race on the second lap but many have lost it there. Lopez had a kick and he wanted to be in a position to use it.
Lopez crossed the start line and began lap three, the lap where you put yourself in position to strike. The field continued at a minute-a-lap pace, which is very fast but not too fast to maintain. Lopez stayed less than half a second behind the leader. Fatigue starts to build in the third lap. Feet grow heavy. Legs weaken. Lopez stayed focused on running his race.
They crossed the start line and the bell rang. The leader through the first three laps started to fade. Leo Manzano, the 1500 meter indoor champion, moved into the lead. Lopez sped up to follow right behind him. As he approached the three hundred meter mark, Lopez started his kick. He darted into second and pushed himself as hard as he could.
Manzano pushed himself as well. With fifty meters to go, Manzano stayed one step ahead of Lopez. At the thirty meter mark Lopez pulled even. At twenty meters he pulled ahead. Lopez never saw Manzano again.
Lopez cruised through the finish line, took a few steps, punched the stopwatch, then collapsed on the track in joy. “Thank you, God. Thank you. May You multiply this gift You have given me more and more.” He prayed to himself.
On July 4, 2007, Lopez became an United States citizen. He was eligible to run in the Pan Am Games but someone contacted him with a better offer, one for which he had waited seventeen years.
“This is Mary Carillo with HBO’s Real Sports,” the woman said on the phone. “Our producers watched you win the 1500 in the NCAA Championships and were intrigued by your story. We would like to do a feature on you, if you are interested.”
“Of course, yes. Thank you,” Lopez said. Anytime anyone asked him to tell his story, he accepted the offer. Running gave him a platform to talk about South Sudan and the lost boys. He had to use it. He assumed a crew from HBO would fly out to Arizona, ask a few questions, and shoot some footage of him running. Mary Carillo had something much bigger in mind. Mary Carillo and HBO planned to take him to meet his mother in Kenya.
They arrived in Nairobi and spent the night. In the morning, Mary and the camera crew prepared to drive him to Juja, 18 miles away. A few blocks from his mother’s apartment house, people took notice of their vehicle. The driver slowed down as a group of children ran toward their car.
“Wait a minute!” Lopez said. “I recognize those boys. Stop the car.” The car stopped. Children jumped on the running boards and reached into the windows. Lopez leaned out and called over to two boys – who he had seen in pictures from a friend who had made a previous trip to Kenya. “I know you. You are my brothers!”
Lopez motioned for them to come over to him. They did, but he could tell from the looks on their faces they had no idea what was going on. They came only because of the television cameras. “How are you doing? I am your brother Lopez.” Lopez spoke in English. The boys looked on confused.
Lopez jumped out of the car. Mary followed. “These are my brothers Peter and Alex,” Lopez said. “Nice to meet you,” Mary said. The two boys stayed close to Lopez but not too close. They were still unsure of exactly who or what he was.
They were close enough now to his mother’s apartment that they decided to walk. Cameramen walked backward in front of Lopez as if he were some sort of celebrity. Mary and the HBO producer fell in behind Lopez. The farther they walked, the more the buzz around them grew.
People started dancing. Word was out: the lost boy had come home! The dead boy was back from the grave. The party had started already.
The parade stopped. The sea of people around Lopez parted. All eyes turned to the woman standing in a doorway. “Mama, it’s me, Lopez.”
“Lopepe!” she screamed. Lopez rushed over to her. She reached up to Lopez and hugged him tight around his neck. Seventeen years had passed since the soldier ripped him out of her arms.
“What’s going through your mind right now?” Mary asked.
“I’m speechless,” Lopez said. “I mean, this is my family…..unbelievable.”
Management Lesson #17 – Don’t Forget Where You Came From
It is easy to forget that what you have is often been hard-earned. It is easy to forget that you once were in the state that others are currently in. Don’t allow yourself to become so calloused as to forget where you came from.