The early days of January are typically the time when athletes plot out their goals and ambitions for the upcoming year, Athlete Refugee Team member Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu among them.
“I want to be the first refugee to get a medal,” the 20-year-old said, a proclamation delivered in a voice framed by youthful exuberance on one side and an understated determination on the other. “That’s more important than anything else.”
Lokinyomo’s weren’t the words of a brash cocky upstart. Rather, they were a simple pronouncement made by a passionate and fast-learning athlete who has quickly come to realise what it will take to elevate his talent and ambitions to the next level.
There was a glimpse of that at the 4th Athletics Kenya Cross Country Series meeting in Kisii on 12 January when Lokinyomo finished eighth in the men’s senior race, covering the hilly 10km course in 29:53 to finish just over half a minute behind winner Richard Kimunyan.
No, that’s not quite world-beating just yet, but a top-ten finish in a race that’s part of the most competitive national cross country series on the planet is something to take note of. Highlight as well that Lokinyomo, largely untested over the distance, ran nearly three-and-a-half minutes faster than in his previous 10km outing just three weeks before, and you see why his run on the Kisii Golf Club course turned a few heads.
“The future looks bright,” Kenyan national team coach Julius Kirwa observed.
Lokinyomo’s run was arguably one of the most notable performances since the refugee team project, spearheaded by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and the Tegla Loroupe Training Camp for Athlete Refugees in Ngong, Kenya, made its international debut in 2016. For his part, Lokinyomo was pleased, but also seemingly unfazed.
“It was not really that bad,” he said, summing up his post-race precis.
Running together with his teammate and squad captain Pur Biel, Lokinyomo said: “We just kept pushing it until the final lap.” Feeling good, at that point he took off on his own, remaining in the lead group until the waning stages. Instead of tired, he left the course energised.
“I am going back to even more serious training in Ngong and I will work with my coaches to refine my skill,” he said.
Although he’s just a few months into his twenties, Lokinyomo is already a veteran of three international refugee team appearances, part of a fledgling career that seemed beyond any realm of possibility a decade ago.
Chukudum is a small, remote village wedged in a valley between ranges of the Didinga Hills in the southeastern corner of South Sudan, about 25 kilometres from where its border meets those of Kenya and Uganda. It's said that those rugged mountains, whose jagged peaks stab the sky at nearly 2000m, are often shrouded in clouds and mist, lending an ethereal, dreamy quality to the village's southern reaches.
It was in this relatively isolated setting that Lokinyomo, who was born in 1998, spent the first eight years of his life, seven of those during the final years of the Second Sudanese Civil War, a conflict that raged on for nearly 22 years. It was one of the longest civil wars on record and left the region in tatters. That conflict eventually split Africa’s largest country in two with the creation of South Sudan in 2011.
But peace was fleeting. Two years later came the start of the South Sudanese Civil War and with it another massive humanitarian crisis. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the wars have collectively forced more than 2.2 million South Sudanese to flee to neighbouring countries and left another 2.1 million internally displaced. At the moment, South Sudan sits third among countries from which refugees are fleeing, behind Syria and Afghanistan.
During that first conflict, Lokinyomo’s family found itself among those faceless millions. They fled their village after their home was raided by soldiers but were soon separated. Lokinyomo wound up in an orphanage for a time – he doesn’t remember exactly how long – until mid 2007 when, with the help of an Italian NGO, he eventually made it across the border to Kenya and settled in Juja, a town of 40,000 about 30 kilometres north of Nairobi.
‘I believe in sport to better myself’
It was there, at age nine, that he eventually returned to school and, to help pass the time and ease the pain of separation from his family, took up sport.
Like most teenagers in his community, he played football, but attracted by running’s strong individual nature, he decided early on to leave the pitch behind.
“It’s not like football, a team sport. In running, it depends on you,” he said.
His talent and passion caught the eye of coaches at Loroupe’s camp. In September of 2016 he relocated again, this time to Ngong where he found himself training with runners who had just competed at the Olympic Games in Rio. There he began experimenting with a variety of distances to find out where he’d fit best.
He made his Athlete Refugee Team debut the following April as a member of the 4x800m quartet that competed at the IAAF World Relays in Nassau. The following August he ran a 3:52.78 personal best in the 1500m heats at the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
At the African Championships in Asaba, Nigeria, last year, Lokinyomo moved up in distance again, and showed that he could be competitive. Running in hot and difficult conditions in a tactical 5000m final and still a teenager, Lokinyomo finished 11th of the 22 finishers, clocking 14:07.22, another personal best, about 20 seconds behind winner Edward Zakayo.
While he’s beginning to show promise at longer distances, he said he’ll stick with the middle distances for now.
“I like track more than the road and I think right now the 5000m is the best for me. I cannot rush to the marathon yet, so I’ll stay with track and cross country for now.”
A family of running colleagues
Lokinyomo is part of a group of 30 training and living at the Loroupe camp, a centre whose work has been funded in part since 2014 through a grant from the IAAF’s Athletics for a Better World programme.
Most days begin with a wake-up alarm between 5:20 and 5:30, with their first training session half an hour later. “Six-sharp,” Lokinyomo confirms.
The group’s training regimen includes two or three sessions per day, five or six days per week, with Sundays off. So far, his longest training run has been 18 kilometres.
Two years ago, Lokinyomo was reunited with the oldest of his four sisters, Ajelina, who is now living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. But communication with South Sudan remains difficult. He hasn’t been in touch with his mother in more than a year. For the most part, his training camp colleagues are his family now.
“Sometimes they help you, they push you,” he said. “They give you motivation. They really help me, and we really help each other.”
Admission into the Loroupe camp meant balancing his training with obligatory sessions hitting the books. He kept that end of that bargain when he finished high school last autumn. He plans to continue his studies – computers are another passion, he said – but for now wants to continue running and training full time.
“It’s really individual – to believe in yourself and in something you love. There is no other sport that with really hard work you can come so far in three years.”
He has come far, both literally and figuratively a world away from the childhood experiences he left behind in Chukudum. But he knows that raising his game over the next three years and beyond will prove even more difficult. Given his resilience, he seems up to the challenge.
“I’m now able to dedicate more time to training,” he said. “I believe in sport to better myself. I want to do better.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF