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What Keeps Steven Lopez Going?

By Karen Price | April 24, 2015, 3:20 p.m. (ET)

Steven Lopez (L) competes against Ramin Azizov (R) of Azerbaijan during the men's -80 kg. taekwondo preliminary round at the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on Aug. 10, 2012 in London.

Steven Lopez was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this week rehabbing and trying to strengthen a shoulder injury before departing for Russia for the WTF World Taekwondo Championships.

Taekwondo athlete, Steven Lopez poses for a portrait during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 13, 2012 in Dallas.

His doctor told him that if he was just an average guy, he’d need to have surgery on the shoulder, which Lopez dislocated at the Pan American Games Team Trials a week earlier. But that isn’t an option for Lopez. Surgery would mean weeks on the shelf, and he leaves for Russia on May 6. There are too many valuable points to be won at the world championships, points that would go a long way toward qualifying for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“I will be competing,” said Lopez, who defeated T.J. Curry in the welterweight division to earn a spot on the eight-person Pan Am team that will compete in Toronto in July. “I have no option but to go.”

Lopez is already a four-time Olympian and two-time gold medalist, but the selection process for the Games has changed since London in 2012. Instead of using a World Qualification Tournament, the WTF rules now state that the top six ranked athletes of each weight category following the Grand Prix Final of 2015 will qualify one quota place each for their National Olympic Committee for the Games. It’s then up to each athlete’s NOC to decide how to use the spot, and USA Taekwondo has not yet finalized its selection procedure. That accounts for as many as 48 quota spots, while 72 other quota spots will be filled through Continental Qualification Tournaments.

In the meantime, Lopez said that athletes are now competing every month if not more often in order to earn as many points in the rankings as they can. Suffer an injury with a prolonged recovery time, he explained, and an athlete risks falling behind.

Not all events are created equal, however.

A gold medal at a regular open event earns an athlete 10 points, while gold at a grand prix event earns 40. A gold medal at the world championships is worth 120 points.

The new format means that Lopez is now competing more often than he ever has in his career, and at 36 years old in a sport as physically and mentally demanding as taekwondo, that’s a lot to ask. Intense training no longer exists. It’s now compete, recover, maintain and compete again.

“The most important thing I’m doing is trying to stay healthy,” he said. “I have my markers that I’ve made up for myself, whether on the bike or running. As you get older, you do start thinking, ‘Am I slowing down? As long as I have those markers and I’m meeting or exceeding them, I know I’m in good shape. What comes with age is wisdom and experience, and I think that far outweighs any slowing down that may come with age.”

Brother and coach Jean Lopez said Steven has nothing to worry about when it comes to keeping up physically. He has, at times, worried about his brother’s mental motivation to keep going in a taxing sport in which the rules frequently change.

“There have been times where I’ve said, ‘Listen, you stepped in the ring and it looked like you didn’t want it bad enough,’” Jean Lopez said. “If that’s the case, I have to be honest and say it’s best to hang it up. I’ve had those conversations with him as a test to see if he truly wants it and he’s truly motivated.’”

Steven Lopez said that he is.

If he retired tomorrow, Lopez would leave as the most decorated athlete in taekwondo. With world titles in 2001 as a lightweight, and then in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009 as a welterweight, he is the first taekwondo fighter to win five world championships. He won Olympic gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and bronze in 2008. 

But Jean Lopez believes his brother wants to continue to make history, to add to the legacy and, most importantly, to not leave with the 2012 Olympic Games being the last the world saw of him on the sport’s biggest stage.

Two weeks before London, Steven Lopez turned an ankle. Nothing turned up on X-rays or MRIs initially, but when competition began in London, Lopez said, he could only kick with one leg. A later exam showed a fracture. He did not medal.

Jean Lopez said the fact that Steven wasn’t able to compete at 100 percent makes him unwilling to let 2012 go as his last Games.

“When he first made the team at 21, they were saying he was too young to win,” Jean Lopez said. “Now people are saying he’s too old to win. Things like that motivate him to do the impossible.”

Steven said his friends have told him he should retire while he’s still ahead, and although he understands their concern he believes they come from a place of fear of losing.

“In my mind I always come from a place of I could do it again,” Lopez said. “That’s what keeps me motivated. God has given us a short span in life where we’re physically capable of doing this. I know I’m toward the very end of my Olympic career, but I know that once this is done I won’t have to look back say man, coulda, shoulda, woulda. I never want to be 40 or 45 going, ‘I wish I could have gone for it one more time.’ That’s why I keep going.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.