Sitting on the top porch step of his small house in Smoketown, Rizik Lado tightened his running shoes. It was a perfect autumn day for a run through Cherokee Park, sunny and cool.
It was a far cry from one of Lado’s earliest memories, when, as a barefoot 5-year-old, he bolted from his village in South Sudan as his teacher shouted for the schoolchildren to flee. He still remembers the invading rebels’ gunfire.
Running was how Lado stayed alive.
“If I was not running, I might be dying,” he said. “I ran for my life, just to survive.”
That led to a passion for running, which the now 26-year-old Lado shares with duPont Manual High School’s cross country team as an assistant coach. The girl’s squad — his “little sisters” — won a state championship earlier this month. A member of the boys’ team, Yared Nuguse, also just won a state title.
“Sometimes when they think a workout is very hard I tell them about running from snakes and the rebels in Africa,” Lado said. “I say to them — if a boy from a tiny village in Africa can make it to the United States, you can do anything, if you believe you can.”
His journey began on that fateful day in 1994. Barefoot and by himself, Lado fled high into the mountains. Over several days he slept in a cave, eating a sweet potato that he had brought to school a little at a time.
He watched from his hiding place as his village was burned and cattle slaughtered. When the rebels no longer had reason to stay, they moved on and Lado knew it was safe to come down from the mountain.
That was the way of life in his village, he said. Rebels would invade and little Lado would run. He learned to use his speed and cunning to survive other dangers in his homeland such as gorillas, tigers and snakes. “Every morning I woke up and thought, ‘How do I survive today.’ “
Lado learned to appreciate what little he had, which sometimes was nothing more than a smile. “I think it’s hard sometimes for people to connect, but if you give them a happy face and just wave” he said in broken English, “if you smile, they can feel better.”
To escape the violence in South Sudan, his mother walked to Uganda with his sister but left Lado with a relative. “It was a very long way to Uganda and my mother didn’t think I would make it,” he said.
A year later, Lado’s uncle sent a letter to the village with instructions for the boy to travel to the capital city of Juba, board a cargo plane and fly north to live with his family.
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So at age 6, he climbed aboard a plane and found a spot to sit on its metal floor, next to other young Sudanese fleeing the violence. “The guys were laughing at me because I was a little boy and I was so scared,” Lado said. “When the plane took off and landed, I was so frightened because I didn’t know what was going on.”
His new family moved to Syria, where Lado’s uncle had a job working in an airport. Living in Syria was a lonely time. “It was very hard for me to learn Arabic, and I was the only one at my school with dark skin,” he said. “Kids would touch me with their fingers to see if the color would stick to them.”
To relieve his stress and loneliness, Lado ran, a lot. He was given his first pair of running shoes and after school, before he started his homework, he filled his time running intervals, up and down a nearby mountain. “Running became my friend. When I would run, I would always feel better.” Lado said. He became a very fast runner and won three championships while living in Syria.
When war again invaded their lives in Syria, Lado and his new family decided to move to America. With the help of Catholic Charities, they found a home in Louisville. The move meant learning yet another language and culture and finding his way in another new school.
“I met the football coach my first day at Central High School and he asked me if I played soccer and if I could kick a football,” Lado said. “I thought sure, why not, I wanted to keep myself very busy”.
In 2007, 2008 and 2010 Lado was the kicker on Central’s state championship football teams. His team won a state championship in track and field. He also played on the Yellow Jackets’ soccer team. “I went to practice and I studied and I just kept moving forward, I didn’t look back.”
Lado, who is now an American citizen, now squeezes in 10 to 15 miles of running between college courses and his job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Jeffersonville. He lives in a four-room house with six brothers and sisters plus the aunt and uncle who rescued him from South Sudan. “I am very thankful they made me their son, I call them Mom and Dad.”
When the Manual girls’ squad won the Kentucky State Championship on Nov. 5, the school held a rally to celebrate. During the ceremony, the ten varsity girls who won the championship sat on folding chairs placed in a row on the shiny gymnasium floor. Wearing a red Manual coaching jacket, Lado sat at the end of the row, smiling and cheering. “They are like a family for me, they are my little sisters and brothers.”
The thread flowing throughout Lado’s life has been the simple act of running. It kept him alive as a little boy in South Sudan and relieved loneliness and brought him success in Syria and the United States. It brought him friendships and family in unexpected places. “Running is what I have always known I had to do” Lado said. “For me, it is being human.”
Reach Kirby Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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