RIO DE JANEIRO — With five world championship titles, two Olympic golds and one bronze to his name, it would be understandable to wonder what Steven Lopez had left to prove in the world of taekwondo.
It’s this: an ankle injury before the London Games in 2012 kept Lopez off the podium for the first time in his Olympic career. Rio, his fifth Olympic Games, was to be his redemption. His chance to leave yet another mark in the sport in which he is the most decorated athlete of all time.
Lopez was ultimately left off of the podium, his loss in the bronze-medal bout to Tunisia’s Oussama Queslati ending his Rio journey. However, he is leaving the Olympics on his terms, not with an injury that left questions of “what if” in everyone’s minds.
“I’m happy I was able to perform and fight and give it all I’ve got,” Lopez said. “I left it all in the ring. I’m proud of my performance.”
He started the welterweight tournament Friday by defeating Albert Gaun of Russia, 7-4, in the Round of 16. Then, he stalled. A loss to Great Britain’s Lutalo Muhammad in the quarterfinals, 9-2, left him waiting to see if he would have a second chance through repechage. Muhammad advanced through the semifinals and thus, Lopez moved on too.
The repechage presented a challenge in Hayder Shkara of Australia. At the end of the three normal, prescribed rounds, the point total was 0-0. So it was on to what is known as the “Golden Point” round, in which the athlete with the most kicks by the time the buzzer sounds wins the match. By the end of a tense two minutes, Lopez had four kicks. His opponent had two. He moved on to the bronze-medal match against Queslati.
Despite his 14-5 loss for a fourth Olympic medal, Lopez has left an indelible mark on the sport.
“He’s had success for so many years, to be able to make history time and time and time and time again,” his brother and coach Jean Lopez said. “When you have the losses it makes you appreciate everything you’ve done.”
Steven has stuck with the sport through style changes and rule changes, calling the taekwondo displayed in his first Olympics compared to now “night and day.” He said it has been different, but through it all, he still loves the sport as much as he did at the start.
“It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a little boy,” Lopez said, saying the sport has given him “memorable experiences that I’ll have the rest of my life.”
While he had hoped for a fourth medal to add to his collection, the 37-year-old says he is at peace with the final result and with what he has accomplished.
“I’m proud of being here,” Lopez said. “I’m proud of the consistency. I’m proud of persevering through a lot of injuries. Being able to still be here, obviously that wasn’t the ultimate goal, but I am proud that I was able to make the team in a full-contact sport.”
Rebecca Harris is a student in the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.