An Interview with Aussie Athlete Joseph Deng

Words by Ben McKelvey 
Photography by Michael Naumoff
I didn’t want to run it. I thought that I was done.

NOW MELBOURNE BASED RUNNER JOSEPH DENG had to be convinced to run the 800-metre B-final of the Australian Athletics Championships in the Gold Coast earlier this year. The then 19-year-old had clocked 1:47.52 in his qualifying run. It had been a sunbeam away from the final, but still a disappointing result for the Kenyan-born Sudanese-Australian, and even though he was an outside chance, Deng was here to win.

The qualifying structure of the competition was that the winner of each heat would be in the A-final, and in his heat Deng drew with Olympian Luke Mathews. Coach Justin Rinaldi developed a race plan: Deng would go relatively slowly for the first 400, trying to drag the other runners back with him and then blow everyone away in the second 400.

‘It didn’t work,’ says Rinaldi. ‘It was my fault. Luke was just too fit for that.’

It appeared that Deng was out of the medals and out of consideration for the Australian team competing in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, soon to be happening close to his home town, friends and family.

Athlete Joseph Deng in Mr Jones

The result was disappointing but far from crushing. The teenage Deng was a greenhorn; he’d only been training seriously for a few years. Inconsistency is a hallmark of junior runners competing against more senior athletes, and Deng had come up against the reigning Australian champion. He had plenty of time to shore up the mental, technical and physical aspects of his game. Deng now only wanted to concentrate on supporting his training partner, Peter Bol, in the final and enjoy the few weeks of rest that were coming.

‘There were a couple of days between races, so I let it go for a day,’ says Rinaldi. ‘Then I said, “We might as well have a go and at least get the exercise”.’

Running freely and without stakes, Deng blew the doors off, recording a final time that was almost a full two seconds faster than his qualifying time. In fact, he ran faster than anyone in the A-final – even Mathews, the winner.

The run that meant nothing ended up being the most consequential of his young life. Deng was given the third discretionary spot into the Commonwealth Games team.

This was the tangible start of an unexpectedly eventful year for Deng. A year that would not only include maturation athletically (culminating in the destruction of a 49-year-old Australian record) but also personally, when the young runner, born a stateless refugee and raised in Australia, decided that he would not just shut up and run.

Athlete Joseph Deng in Mr Jones

I’m sure I can go faster. I don’t know how fast. I really want to find out.

JOSEPH DENG WAS BORN IN 1998 IN CAMP 33 of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, a huge, dusty and desperate mass of humanity a few kilometres south of what was then Sudan and is now South Sudan. At that point the Second Sudanese Civil War, made possible by arms and support from myriad countries across the globe, had been going for 15 years. The war had likely killed two million Sudanese people, mostly southern Sudanese like Deng, but at that time few were counting.

The Kakuma camp had been built six years earlier when traumatised boys conscripted into the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had dropped their arms in Sudan or Ethiopia and started drifting south, stopping only when they could no longer hear the sound of guns.

By the time Deng was born, the camp had swollen into a small city of nearly 100,000. Kenya is a poor country accommodating refugees fleeing wars from four of their five neighbouring countries, so the residents of Kakuma had to rely on the UNHCR for food, medicine and clean water, and for the first six years of his life, the boy lived in a small tent with his mother Rebecca, her sister Margaret and her brother John.

The family had fled from a fishing village on the Nile close to Bor District, the site of one of the war’s greatest atrocities. I visited that village with Deng Adut, a former child soldier who would later become the NSW Australian of the Year in 2016. I’ll never forget stopping next to a destroyed battle tank and being told by our driver to pee on the road and not in the bush, as that was still full of bodies.

Deng has no retrievable memory of his life in East Africa except for his uncle John Deng who, until recently, lived with Joe (not the John Deng he shared a tent with but another uncle named John) and shares his memories of Joseph as a child: ‘In Kakuma I would watch Joe sprinting all over the place and we used to wonder if he would end up being a runner. But at the camp there were no opportunities for running or anything,’ says John.

Athlete Joseph Deng in Mr Jones

There were some very rare and precious opportunities, though, in the form of third country resettlement. A family member named David Amol managed to arrange the golden ticket – Australian refugee resettlement. Amol moved to Toowoomba in Queensland and worked to bring over some family members who, in 2004, included Margaret, Rebecca and little Joseph Deng.

‘People were cool in Toowoomba,’ says Deng. ‘There were already quite a few African people by the time I went to school, so I think that helped.’

He attended Raceview State School, southwest of Brisbane, splitting his attention between his studies, soccer (a staple of Kakuma life), PlayStation and cross-country running. Deng says he was pretty good at all those things, but never the best.

‘He was a good boy. Never had problems with the kids or teachers and always worked hard,’ says John.

Apart from the language he sometimes spoke at home and the colour of his skin, Deng’s life was indistinguishable from most other kids growing up in the area.

‘Boys like him are different to us,’ says John, who is 32 and was one Joseph’s guardians. ‘I remember the war and being a refugee and the village and all that stuff. He really started his life here. He only remembers Australia and peace.’

Some Sudanese-Australians in the Toowoomba community went back to Africa after the slow walk to a peace treaty that resulted in the establishment of a new state, South Sudan, in 2011 (only to have that new country descend into war two years later). But for boys like Deng, they knew only Australian dreams. In high school for Deng, one of those dreams became competitive running.

Athlete Joseph Deng in Mr Jones

At the invitation of another African-Australian friend, he attended an athletics training session on the clipped-green grass of the athletic track behind Ipswich Grammar’s grand colonial buildings. There he fell under the gaze of the school’s athletics coach, Di Sheppard. In the skinny kid Sheppard says she saw incredible middle-distance potential.

She contacted the Deng family and told them the school wanted to offer their son a full athletic scholarship. They pushed Deng to accept the offer and, with a number of friends already graduating from Raceview to Ipswich Grammar, he was happy to comply.

‘It was a pretty good school. I liked classes there, but it was also the first time I trained properly,’ says Deng. ‘The training was good but the mental stuff was the most important. I stopped playing football and just concentrated on running. When I got there I was running 2:16 and the next year it dropped to 2:04.’

‘Joe’s success so far has a bit to do with genetics,’ Sheppard told The Courier Mail in 2016, ‘but it’s more to do with attitude. He trains hard and is focused. I’m a big believer in giving kids every opportunity. Then it’s up to them to run with it.’

‘I started to love it,’ Deng said of the training. ‘And I got really interested to see where my time would settle at.’ 

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