The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away. The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The ninth part of the series features Steven Lopez, a taekwondo athlete who earned three Olympic medals, two gold, in three trips to the Olympic Games, in Sydney, Athens and Beijing.
Two Olympic gold medals. Olympic bronze medal. Five World Taekwondo Championships gold medals.
Steven Lopez is the most decorated athlete in taekwondo history. Lopez won gold in his first Olympic appearance at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and successfully defended his title four years later at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Lopez and his siblings, Jean, Mark and Diana, made history for several reasons at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The quartet became the first family to have four siblings on the same Olympic team (Jean served as the coach, while his three siblings all competed in the Games). And Steven, Mark and Diana were the first three siblings to medal at the same Olympic Games. Lopez missed out on a third gold medal in Beijing, instead taking a bronze, but continues to be a force to be reckoned with and is on the hunt for gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Thanks, Chuck Norris
In 1972, Julio and Ondina Lopez emigrated from Nicaragua to New York. The following year, Ondina gave birth to their first child: Jean.
Julio Lopez always enjoyed watching Chuck Norris movies, but never had the opportunity to do any karate himself. After moving his family to Sugar Land, Texas, he saw an advertisement for a karate school in Houston and immediately enrolled his son Jean.
“As it turned out it was actually a taekwondo school,” Jean said. “And that is how it all began.”
Two years later, younger brother Steven followed in his brother’s footsteps and took up taekwondo.
“It was great as we always enjoyed doing things together,” Jean said. “Steven and I would practice in our garage and Mark and Diana would watch us train until they were finally old enough to join us.”
Steven Lopez played all sorts of sports from football to baseball to basketball when he was young, but for some reason he gravitated towards taekwondo above anything else. Lopez made the junior national team at a young age and began to travel the world.
“In baseball and football, I was lucky to go to another city to play with another team,’’ Steven said.
His passion for the sport increased in 1988, when he was 10 and saw it performed as a demonstration sport at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games.
“That’s where the whole concept of wanting to be on the Olympic team and representing the United States first ignited inside of me,” Steven said. And, it’s gotten a lot more popular. Obviously, it’s popular in the world for it to be an Olympic sport. But I think I have an opportunity as well as a responsibility to bring more attention to our sport, nationally.”
Living the Dream
Taekwondo was a demonstration sport again at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. As there were no demonstration sports at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games it did not become a full-medal sport until the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Steven had won gold at the 1996 and 1998 Pan American Taekwondo Championships, 1997 World Cup Taekwondo Championships and 1999 Pan American Games. He had no problem qualifying for the Sydney Games, but was still surprised to be on the team.
“I just thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I made the Olympic team,’ ” Steven said. “I had been to Australia before, but never had gone to Sydney.”
Based on his past international performances, Lopez knew he was capable of winning and went into the Games with that mental attitude.
“The only difference is it is the Olympic Games, so you get a lot more of the pressure,” Steven said. “But I took that as an opportunity because I felt, ‘Who knows if in four years I’ll be as good as I am now, and so I don’t want to risk not taking full advantage of this wonderful opportunity that I have.’ ”
He took full advantage of that opportunity and, at 22, he won the first gold medal to be awarded in the featherweight (68kg) taekwondo event at the Olympic Games.
“It was amazing,’’ Jean said. “All those years of practicing and dreaming of that moment paid off. I had to watch from the stands, which was tough. My sister, Diana, and I, jumped the barricades to congratulate Steven when he won. We were just overcome with emotions that we forgot we didn’t have the proper credentials to be on the floor, but it will be something I will always remember.”
Four years later, Jean would not have to watch from the stands. In 2001, he went from being a former national champion to becoming head coach of the U.S. World Championships team. He also coached the 2003 World Championships team and was named the head U.S. Olympic coach in 2004.
That meant Jean was coaching Steven, Mark and Diana.
“The advantage I have in coaching my siblings is I know what they are thinking without them telling me and they trust me,” Jean said.
“When I was younger, it was difficult at times having your older brother telling you what to do,” Steven said. “But as we got older, I realized the advantage I have over most people – having someone you can trust. So when you’re in a high pressure situation like being in the Olympics or World Championships, then that kind of relationship with your coach is vital.”
But for Jean, coaching his siblings is not always a walk in the park.
“Every once in a while, the three of them gang up on me and then I am outnumbered,” Jean said.
Steven won lightweight gold at the 2001 World Taekwondo Championships before moving to the welterweight (78kg) weight class, which he won gold in at the 2003 World Taekwondo Championships.
Then he qualified for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, where he successfully continued his dominance in the sport and won Olympic welterweight (80kg) gold.
“I thought, ‘I did it once, maybe it was a fluke, or maybe I was lucky,’ but to be able to do it again, I was proud of that achievement,” Steven said. “To do it again in Athens, where the Olympics originated and to be able to win another gold medal at a different weight class was very gratifying for me.”
Lopez won welterweight gold at both the 2005 and 2007 World Taekwondo Championships. He seemed unbeatable and hoped to win a third Olympic gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
And this time, the Games would be a true Lopez family affair with Mark and Diana joining Steven and head coach, Jean. Mark had qualified for the men’s featherweight (68kg) and Diana for the women’s featherweight (57kg) competition.
The trio made history at the 2005 World Taekwondo Championships when they became the first three siblings in any sport to claim World Championship titles at the same competition; Steven in welterweight, Mark in featherweight (67kg) and Diana in featherweight (59kg). They made history in Beijing as the first three U.S. siblings to qualify for the same Olympic Games since 1904 Olympic Games, when gymnasts Edward, Richard and William Tritschler all competed in St. Louis.
They continued to make history by becoming the first three U.S. siblings to ever medal at the same Olympic Games. On Aug. 21, Diana earned a bronze and Mark finished with a silver.
“The plan was for big brother to come in and win the gold medal,” Steven said. “But things didn’t work out the way I planned.”
The day after his siblings won medals, Steven earned a welterweight bronze even though he said he trained for the gold.
“The first match in Beijing was against the current world champion in the middleweight class, and the guy I fought in the finals in 2004,” Steven said. “I might’ve been a little lackadaisical or a little overconfident that I had gotten rid of the toughest guy in the division in my first match.”
In the quarterfinal match, he lost to Italy's Mauro Sarmiento in sudden death, where the first point wins. If it were not for some unjust calls made by a referee in that match, he would have been able to contend for the gold.
The referee of that match claimed Steven used a cut kick (kicking away an opponent’s blow below the waist), but Herb Perez, the U.S. team leader, noted that he had raised his left leg in defense and Sarmiento kicked into Steven’s leg in an attempt to draw a point deduction. The World Taekwondo Federation eventually wrote Steven an official letter in which it apologized for the wrong call.
“It doesn’t change the fact that I still took the bronze instead of the gold,” Steven said. “But I’m happy either way I look at it, because I earned that bronze medal. I could’ve gone in my third Olympic Games and won a gold medal, but what is more gratifying to me is being able to make the Olympic team with my whole family.”
London and Beyond
Despite missing out on the gold in Beijing, Steven’s performance did not waiver and he won welterweight gold at the 2009 World Taekwondo Championships. That victory made him the first taekwondo fighter to ever win five World Championships.
Some might think that Steven could easily get bored of his sport, after dominating for so long. And he admitted that this is one of his biggest struggles.
“If there’s something that I have to constantly tell myself, it’s not to get a little overconfident or lackadaisical,” Steven said. “The one thing that I do know I have is a passion for the sport. I love training and that’s why I’m trying to make the 2012 team. If I didn’t feel so then I would’ve retired.”
While the Games are still two years away, the qualification process starts this November with a national qualification to determine which athletes are sent to next year’s World Olympic Qualifiers. If all goes right, Steven will earn his ticket to London with Mark and Diana.
The Lopez siblings published a book last year titled, “Family Power: The True Story of How “The First Family of Taekwondo” Made Olympic History,” and hope to add on chapters after their performances in London.
“When we get older, when we have children, when we have grandchildren, what we’re gonna be able to talk about is the experiences that we had as a family at the Olympic Games,” Steven said. “And what’s icing on the cake is to be able to bring home some gold medals.”
Individually, Steven is more determined to win gold than ever.
“Going to the 2012 Olympics, I want to win back the title that I lost in ’08,” he said.
And if he doesn’t win gold again this time around? Steven just might continue to compete for a fifth Olympic Games.
As he put it: “If I still feel the way I do now, if I’m physically fit, and mentally and spiritually prepared to go on another four years, then I’ll do so.’’
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