RENO, Nev. -- The United States’ most decorated taekwondo fighter and a 2012 Olympic medalist are among the three competitors who emerged victorious at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on Tuesday afternoon in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Steven Lopez of Sugar Land, Texas, scored an overtime win over 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Terrence Jennings in the men’s welterweight (-80 kg.) class to remain in contention for his fifth berth to the Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
“It’s what I love to do,” said the 37-year-old Lopez, who won Olympic gold in 2000 and 2004, then bronze in 2008. “Like an artist, they paint until they can’t paint any longer. It’s a little different being an Olympic athlete, because physically you are only going to be at your best for a certain amount of time.
“That’s why I have taken this opportunity that God has given me to leave it all on the mat, because when that day comes when I am done, I don’t have to look back and wish what I could have, should have done.”
Meanwhile, welterweight Paige McPherson of Sturgis, South Dakota, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, and heavyweight Stephen Lambdin of Colleyville, Texas, also advanced to the Pan American Qualification Tournament, the final barrier to Rio, on March 10-11 in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
Lopez was in solid position to oust Jennings in regulation time before Jennings rallied late with a hit to the face for a 4-2 edge. But it wasn’t enough as Lopez scored two points in the final two seconds to force overtime.
“It’s very exciting,” Lopez said. “You can be up four or even six points, and nothing is ever done. It’s very easy to accumulate points in this game.”
The match quickly ended in overtime when judges ruled that Jennings pushed Lopez off his feet and punched him in the face. Both are half-point deductions, resulting in the one point Lopez needed to win the match.
“Any way to win is the smart way to win,” Lopez said. “I got deduction points as well for punching him in the face, so it’s part of the match.”
Given the chance to compete in his first U.S. Olympic Team Trials this year, Lambdin seized the opportunity, even if that meant going through veteran Mark Lopez, the younger brother of Steven Lopez and a 2008 Olympic silver medalist, to get there in the heavyweight (+80 kg.) division.
“He’s been around forever, and almost everybody in this team trials has been around for almost two decades, so it’s just one of those things,” Lambdin said.
Lambdin controlled his match. Mark Lopez reduced his deficit to a single point with 50 seconds remaining, but Lambdin prevented any additional scoring to clinch his coveted trials win.
“We knew it was going to be tough coming in,” Lambdin said. “We trained for months for him, and we accomplished the goals that we set out to do, which were to control the ring, make him do all of the work of moving and make him miss the big spins.”
McPherson showed why she is the world’s No. 7 welterweight (-67 kg.) and a 2015 world bronze medalist with her triumph of Cheyenne Lewis. She got a three-point head shot with 20 seconds remaining, then withstood a late rally by Lewis to move on to the continental qualification tournament.
“Although there is a different format this time around, any way or path toward an Olympic Games will be very challenging,” McPherson said. “The Road to Rio has definitely proven to be difficult. Since WTF ranking is an important factor in the qualification process for the 2016 Rio Games, the journey has become more demanding physically and mentally.”
The most competitive matchup of the day transpired between welterweights Jennings and Jaysen Ishida, who were competing for the right to face Steven Lopez. Jennings won the first match on the strength of a head kick inside the final five seconds, but Ishida bounced back to take the next bout in overtime.
However, a wide-angle kick on top by Jennings in the second period determined the deciding match.
“He’s a really good fighter, obviously being a former Olympian,” Ishida, competing in his second Olympic Trials, said. “I felt really confident coming into this tournament, but I couldn’t make the plays for myself.”
At age 24, Ishida isn’t ready to give up on his Olympic dream.
“You just never know. You have to approach every tournament like it’s your last chance,” Ishida said. “Overall, this is a learning experience and I am young. I believe I have another chance in 2020.”
Steven Lopez, McPherson and Lambdin hope to join Jackie Galloway in Rio. Galloway became the first U.S. taekwondo athlete to qualify for the Games by virtue of her top-six ranking from the WTF Olympic rankings following the Grand Prix Final in December.
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.