The journey to reach the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games is a long one for U.S. taekwondo athletes.
The penultimate step is Tuesday in Reno, Nevada.
Eight athletes in three weight divisions will compete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and the three survivors will advance to the Pan American Qualification Tournament on March 10-11 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Athletes who finish in the top two in Aguascalientes will qualify for the Rio Games.
Among the Olympic contenders in Reno are Paige McPherson and Terrence Jennings, bronze medalists at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Olympic medalists and siblings Steven and Mark Lopez are also back competing for trips to Rio, too.
“The London Games was the greatest experience of my life,” McPherson, of Sturgis, South Dakota, said. “Having represented, competed and medaled in something greater than myself is gratifying beyond words. However, my main goal was not accomplished in London. Therefore, I decided to try again to fulfill my dream, which is to win.”
McPherson will battle Lauren Hamon of Miami and Cheyenne Lewis of Elko Grove, California, in the welterweight (-67 kg.) class.
“Both of my fellow competitors have proven themselves worthy opponents,” McPherson said. “Therefore, I am mainly focusing on my own physical and mental preparation for this event, while giving thanks to the Lord for another Olympic opportunity.”
The other two berths to the continental qualification tournament are in men’s divisions, and each one has a Lopez.
Since taekwondo became an Olympic medal sport in 2000, Team USA has won eight medals. Five of those medals belong to the Lopez siblings (including sister Diana Lopez) of Sugar Land, Texas.
Steven Lopez leads the way with three medals — including gold in 2000 and 2004 — and now 37 years old he’s back for a shot at a fifth Olympic Games.
Lopez is competing in the men’s welterweight (-80 kg.) division with Jaysen Ishida of Waikele, Hawaii, and Jennings of Alexandria, Virginia.
The younger Lopez, Mark, who won a silver medal in the Beijing Games in 2008, will duke it out with Stephen Lambdin of Colleyville, Texas. Lambdin comes in as the top seed in the heavyweight class (+80 kg.) and needs to defeat Lopez just once to advance.
“It’s a relief the competition is here,” Lambdin said. “All of the hard work has happened; now, this is the fun part. It’s definitely hard to make it into the Olympics.”
The 27-year-old Lambdin began taekwondo 22 years ago in an unconventional introduction to the sport.
“At the time, I wanted to be Batman, and the closest thing that my parents could come up with was to do taekwondo,” Lambdin said.
Since then, Lambdin has been part of 19 national teams.
“It’s been worth it,” he said.
Now, he gets to put his experience on the line against a savvy veteran in Mark Lopez.
“At end of day, we are two different people,” Lambdin said. “The one thing is that I have prepared really well and have faith in my capabilities and my training.”
The World Taekwondo Federation allotted the United States three entries into the continental qualification tournament, and USA Taekwondo selected the three divisions for the U.S. team trials based on results in those classes in 2015.
Any Americans to ultimately qualify for Rio will join Jackie Galloway.
In December, Galloway became the first U.S. taekwondo athlete to qualify for the 2016 Games after being ranked among the top six following the WTF Olympic rankings. She is Team USA’s first men’s or women’s heavyweight division athlete to qualify for the Games.
Doors open at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center at 2:30 p.m., a half-hour before the trials begins.
Steve Yingling is a sportswriter and sports information officer living in South Lake Tahoe, California. His work has appeared in several publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News, the Dallas Morning News, the Star-Ledger and the Kansas City Star. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.