Lopez went back to Flagstaff after returning from Africa to get ready for the fall semester and the upcoming cross-country season. But this season, something had changed. On long runs, Lopez’ mind raced back to Sudan. He saw the faces of the children as they played in the dirt. Here he was, working on his college degree and those children had no hope of any kind of education. He felt guilty being there.
“I have to do something,” he thought. “God, help me know what to do.”
The money his American parents sent his African family each month made a tremendous difference in their lives. But Lopez did not feel right about asking Rob and Barb to continue supporting his family. After Dominic, Peter, and Lopez graduated and moved out, the Rogers brought in three more lost boys to live with them. The Rogers had done enough for Lopez already. Lopez needed to take over this responsibility himself.
After he won the 1500 NCAA Championship, reps from different shoe companies let him know in a roundabout way that they would be open to sponsoring him when and if he decided to turn pro. Lopez spoke with Coach Hayes and they decided that Lopez should stay through the 2007 cross-country season, turn pro in December, and train exclusively for the 2008 Olympics in the Spring. “You can always negotiate to have your sponsors pay for your college so you can go back to school during the off season,” Hayes told Lopez. Lopez liked the sound of that. He wanted his degree but he knew he had to make one more phone call.
“Hello,” Barb said. “Hi Mom, it’s me, Lopez.” Lopez’ heart raced because he did not know how they would take his news. “I have decided to drop out of school and turn professional in track,” he said. Before Barb could say anything, he added, “I only have three semesters of work left to finish my degree, which I can do during the off seasons. I give you my word that I will get my degree.” Neither of his parents said anything for what felt like a long time (Dad had joined the call in progress). Finally Dad said, “You don’t have to do this because of the money. You know that, don’t you?” “Dad, Mom, you have been great parents to me. You have given me so much. But now it is time for me to support myself and to support my family in Sudan.” “We…” Rob tried to interrupt. “I have to do this,” Lopez said, “and now is the best time to do it. The Olympic trials are in June. If I am going to make the team, I need to start training full-time. Coach Hayes said I can work out with the Air Force Academy team (Coach Hayes had moved to Air Force in the summer of 2007). He’s even going to let me live with him until I am able to move into the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.” Another long pause on the other end of the phone: “As long as you finish your degree, we support your decision 100 percent,” Barb said.
Lopez finished the 2007 cross-country season placing third, individually, at the national championships. He turned pro and moved to Colorado Springs to train alongside the Academy track team. He ran as a pro for the first time at the Adidas Classic in Los Angeles. While not winning, he ran well enough to reassure him that he’d made the right decision. The real highlight of the event did not take place on the track. As Lopez was cooling down from his final event, his agent met him. All of a sudden, his agent said, “Hey look, there’s Michael.” Lopez jaw hit the ground. “Let’s go say hello,” his agent said. Before Lopez could reply, his agent had already taken several steps toward the man.
“Michael,” his agent said, “I would like to introduce you to Lopez Lomong. Lopez,” he said turning toward me, “this is Michael Johnson.” Lopez felt like he had just stepped into a dream. Standing in front of him was the man who changed the course of his life eight years earlier without even knowing it. He looked very different live than he did on that small, grainy, car-battery-operated television. Lopez looked up at him. He was much taller than he appeared on television. “Mr. Johnson,” Lopez said, his voice cracking, “it is an honor to meet you.” Michael reached out and shook Lopez’ hand, “Call me Michael,” he said. Lopez could not wipe the goofy grin off of his face. “I watched you run in the 2000 Olympics while I lived in a refugee camp. I am a runner today because of you.” “That’s kind of you to say, Lopez,” Michael said with a smile. “I know all about your story. I have to tell you, I’ve followed your career. You’re an excellent runner. I’m proud of you and all you’ve accomplished already. You keep running the way you are now, and you’ll be running in the Olympics yourself soon. I know you can do it.”
Three meets later, Lopez beat the Olympic 1500 meter standard time of 3:36. He now automatically qualified to run in the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, in June.
Olympic Trials – Part One
The first injury of Lopez career came two weeks before the Olympic trials. At the end of a workout while running in stride down the backstretch of the track, something popped in the back of his right leg. When he tried to take another step, pain shot up the back of his leg. His leg would hardly move. As a coach, Coach Hayes had seen many runners pull a hamstring. Basically, you can’t run with such a pull. The leg tightens up when you exert it and you are done. Rest is the best treatment, about two months of rest. Lopez had two weeks. The trainers and medical staff at the U.S. Olympic training center were amazing. Over the next few days, they used ultrasounds, ice baths, and pressure massages to try to get Lopez back on the track. Lopez followed a set of specialized exercises to release the tension in his right hamstring and improve his mobility. The therapy regimen loosened up his leg enough that he could run up hills. Coming downhill was a different story. Since he had to keep training, the trials were so close, he ran as hard as possible uphill and limped back downhill.
Coach Hayes was concerned. Lopez said: “Don’t worry, Coach. This is working. I’ll be fine by the time the trials start.” We leave for Eugene next week,” Coach Hayes replied. He was worried. Lopez was not. Lopez never for a moment thought he would not run in Eugene. God had brought him this far. He was confident God had something bigger in mind than letting an injury stop Lopez just short of his goal. Making the Olympic team transcended sport. Running for the United States on sports’ biggest stage would give Lopez a larger platform on which to raise awareness for Sudan and make a difference for the people there. Lopez knew his hamstring would improve once he went to Eugene for the trial because a secret weapon waited for him there. Phil Wharton and his dad, Jim, were the best of the best when it comes to musculoskeletal therapy. They know how to fix athletes quickly. With the assistance of a special diet and special massage sessions, Wharton made it possible for Lopez to go out for the trials.
The trials kicked off, but his event, the 1500 meters was still a few days away. Lopez decided he needed to test his leg prior to the first 1500 heat. Having entered both the 800 and the 1500 before the trial started, he went to Coach Hayes and said: “I’m going to run the 800 just to test my leg speed.” He looked at Lopez like he was crazy. “The 1500 is your best shot at making the Olympic team.” “Yes, I know,” Lopez said. “Then why would you choose to run the 800 instead?” “I’m not. I think I should run the first round of the 800 just to give my leg a little workout before the 1500 starts in a few days.”
Lopez meant what he said until he actually won his heat. “One more round,” he told Coach Hayes. Then he went out and won that race as well. Now Lopez was in the 800 meter finals! With the finals and a spot on the Olympic team right in front of him, he could not walk away. He had to go for it. Coach Hayes came to him. “Lopez, you look awesome out there. However, we cannot jeopardize your chances in the 1500 by letting you run the 800 final.” “I understand,” Lopez said, but I think I can do both.”
Lopez felt great the morning of the 800 final. He started well and fell into the middle of the pack out of the first turn when the runners were allowed to move out of their lanes toward the inside of the track. This left him in fourth position. By the time he came up the home straightaway, he had moved up to second place. The pack headed into the first curve of the second and final lap. His leg felt strong. He thought: “I can do this.” He remained in second all the way down the backstretch. All of a sudden, a runner darted around him. Other runners started passing him as will until he found himself in fifth place. “Not a problem,” he thought. “I will just out kick them.” He dug deep and kicked it into another gear. His feet tore at the track. He knew he could not catch the top two runners but that did not matter. He just needed to finish in third place to punch a ticket to Beijing.
As he approached the finish line, something held him back. Someone behind him had grabbed hold of his jersey! As he tried to pull free, the guy on the inside lane dove toward the finish line. That runner tumbled over the line just ahead of Lopez. Lopez’ Olympic dream had been stolen by a pull of his jersey.
Management Lesson #18 – Don’t Allow Setbacks to Stop You
It is easy to quit the first time you encounter a failure. It is even easier to quit if the effort to achieve an objective was massive. Remember: the sun will always rise tomorrow. Don’t allow setbacks to stop you in the achievement of your dreams.