Charlotte Craig started studying taekwondo when she was 5, “the normal age,” she said. Except Craig had a dysfunctional kidney removed four years earlier, when she was 1, and the doctor didn’t recommend contact sports.
“I’d beg and cry and be at home practicing even though I wasn’t really in classes,” she said. Finally, her parents allowed her to go to the training center with her two older brothers. Inside, she would round up all the other little tagalong siblings and pretend to teach her own taekwondo class.
Once Craig learned the rules, she was equally precocious. She won the first competition she entered. The kidney didn’t seem to be an obstacle and her taekwondo padding protected the area. “I kept winning and winning and all of a sudden, I’m on the Olympic team. It all happened so fast for me,” said Craig, 17.
Not only is she a member of the 2008 Olympic team, she also enjoys a rarefied place among America’s first family of taekwondo. Craig will be the only non-Lopez to represent the US in the sport in Beijing.
Steven Lopez is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion. Mark and Diana Lopez are both 2005 world champions. Their eldest brother, Jean Lopez, is the US Olympic coach. The four Lopez siblings comprise almost the entire US delegation. That is, except for the skilled high school junior from Southern California who takes classes on-line while she prepares for Beijing.
Craig’s ascendance began in 2005, when she won gold at the US senior nationals at age 14. In 2006, she won a bronze at the junior world championships in Vietnam. At the 2007 World Championships in Beijing, she was a late replacement for Mandy Meloon in the finweight class, and her bracket looked like an all-star roster. In Craig’s first bout, she faced an opponent from South Korea where taekwondo is the national sport. Two bouts later, Craig beat the defending world champion from Spain. Next, she out-maneuvered the Pan Am Championships gold medalist from Canada. In the semifinal, she met the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist (-49kg class), Yaowapa Boorapolchai of Thailand. Craig lost to the Thai and was awarded a bronze medal.
“Jean Lopez came up to me and said, “Do you know what you just did?” I said, “I got bronze?’ He said, ‘No, you secured a spot for your weight class to [be contested at] the US Olympic Trials. I was shocked.” Craig said. (At the Olympics, each nation may only enter two weight classes per sex. It is up to each country to determine which weight class it will enter.)
Once Craig officially clinched her Olympic berth in Iowa in April, it wasn’t long before she felt like part of the Lopez family.
“You mean I’m not a Lopez?” she replied to journalists a week later when they singled her out at a media summit in Chicago.
Since then, Craig has been training three times a day, four days a week at home in Murrieta, California, and making day trips 90-minutes west to Laguna Niguel to train with Jimmy Kim, a taekwondo champion at the 1988 Seoul Olympics where the sport was as demonstration event.
Craig also plans to spend several weeks chez Lopez in Texas leading up to Beijing. She has already learned a lot from each of them.
“I asked Steven how the Olympics compares to other competitions,” she said. “He said you’re fighting the same people you’d fight at a World Cup, Pan Ams or Worlds so it’s not much different. So that gave me good perspective.
“Mark tries to get me in the right mindset: think that you’re always the Olympic gold medalist and walk out there like you’re the best.
“Diana, when I’m working out, she’s always motivating me and helping me on technique. She inspires me in that way.
“But if it wasn’t for Jean Lopez, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Craig said. “He always believed in me and never gave up on me. When I was 15, he said, ‘Start preparing for the Olympics because you have a great chance of going.’ I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”
“She has a spark, that X factor” said Jean Lopez recalling what led to that 2006 conversation. “More importantly, she has the belief in her coach and master instructor. Listening is a powerful tool. Besides all the talent and determination in the world, if you’re not coachable and you don’t believe in your coach 100%, you’re not going to go anywhere. At the Junior Worlds in Vietnam, she listened to everything I said precisely. I set the bar high for her. I said, ‘You shouldn’t be a passive participant in this quadrennium leading up to the Olympics in 08. You’ve got to do every thing you can.’”
As hard as Craig worked, she was in a slump leading up to the 2007 World Championships. Craig had lost five major international competitions in the first round. “Jean was always there, telling me to learn from this,” she said.
“Now, she’s ahead of the game,” Jean said. “She’s in a great place. She has nothing to lose and everything to gain. That’s a huge psychological advantage.”
For Diana, the youngest Lopez and the only girl in the family, Craig adds a softer touch to the clan dynamic. “I’ve never had a little sister. I was always with the boys,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone to take care of, talk to and go shopping with. It’s a good addition to our little family.
“She was really a shy, quiet little girl at first. All of a sudden, she started laughing and talking loud, and I’m like, Whoa! There’s a big personality in that little body. I remember the first time she cracked a joke on Steve, the guru of the family. Nobody makes fun of Steven. He’s like, ‘What?’
“She’s really an innocent girl. And win or lose, she still smiles,” Diana said.
The Lopezes aren’t the only ones that have fallen in love with Craig; the taekwondo community has embraced her, too. When Craig returned to Jimmy Kim’s studio after the final Olympic trial in April, she was surprised to find cake, flowers, balloons and a swarm of members gathering to congratulate her.
As if making the 2008 Olympic team, being “adopted” by the Lopez family, and the warm reception weren’t surreal enough, what happened next topped all that. Craig was told that someone anonymously paid for her parents to fly to China. A friend of Kim’s father would provide a driver to take them wherever they wanted to go. And someone else said they had a condo where Craig’s parents could stay during the Games.
And suddenly, the tough, composed, exuberant Olympic cookie crumbled.
“I just started crying,” she said.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.