Like many little kids growing up in the early 1990s, Stephen Lambdin wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
He was only 2 years old when his older brother started martial arts, and his parents tell the story of their younger son, still getting the hang of walking, standing in the corner yelling and kicking.
Finally, on his sixth birthday, Lambdin’s parents enrolled him in taekwondo.
Twenty-two years later, Lambdin is the No. 10-ranked heavyweight in the world and stands on the verge of making his first U.S. Olympic Team. Along with teammates Steven Lopez and Paige McPherson, Lambdin will compete at the Pan American Olympic Qualification Tournament on Thursday and Friday in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The top two finishers in each division will qualify for Rio.
“I guess it was something I was born to do,” said Lambdin, 28, of Colleyville, Texas. “I loved the challenge of it, even as a little kid. No matter how good you get, there’s still so much more you can learn and grow. It’s one of those things that even after I’m done competing, I’ll always keep doing it.”
Lambdin found success in taekwondo early on, at least in his home state of Texas. He would go basically all year without losing a match, he said, then get to the junior national championships and lose in the first round.
“It was seven or eight years in a row,” he said. “It was to the point that one year when I was 13, right before I was old enough to be eligible for the junior national team, the first kick of my first match I kicked the kid in the head too hard and got disqualified. Both my parents asked me, ‘Are you sure you still want to do this? Maybe it’s not the sport for you, and that’s OK if it’s not.’ I was too pigheaded to listen to them.”
The next year, at 14, Lambdin won his first junior national title and was named to the U.S. junior national team. Soon after, the team traveled to Greece for the junior world championships. It was his first big international competition, and Lambdin got “destroyed” in his opening match. Again, some wondered aloud if maybe Lambdin might want to begin investing his time elsewhere.
Two years later, in 2004, Lambdin returned to the junior world championships, won five matches and lost in the sixth to claim bronze.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my proudest moment, but probably that loss in 2002 followed by my medal performance two years later is one of the defining characteristics of my career,” he said.
Lambdin experienced another landmark moment when he defeated 2008 Olympic silver medalist Mark Lopez 2-1 in the third round of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in early February. After each fighter earned point via Kyong-gos, or warnings, Lambdin’s left-leg roundhouse kick earned him the victory.
“It was big for us, honestly,” said longtime coach Jason Poos. “To beat someone who’s a two-time Olympian and big name like (Lopez), for Stephen to beat him like he did was big. It was tempered, for sure, based on not qualifying for the Olympics yet, but to get the opportunity to qualify was satisfying and I’m really happy for him. I know how hard he’s worked.”
Poos described Lambdin’s style as explosive. He’s also one of the smartest athletes that Poos said he’s ever been around, and he excels at quickly finding then exploiting his opponent’s weakness.
When Lambdin finished his last grand prix event last year, it was the mental aspect of training he chose to emphasize in the four months leading up to the Olympic trials. He knew that as long as he didn’t suffer any injuries, ate well and stayed in good health, he might be able to get a little stronger physically. Mentally, however, Lambdin knew there existed the possibility to get significantly stronger.
He found it in Wim Hof.
Hof, otherwise known as “The Iceman,” is famous for his ability to withstand extreme cold by controlling his autonomic nervous system, and has climbed both Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Everest wearing only shorts. He has broken his own record for the world’s longest ice bath several times over. He also teaches others his techniques at camps all over the world.
Lambdin traveled to Poland in the beginning of December for one Hof’s training camps. In addition to learning breathing and other techniques and living life in a much more relaxed, commune-style atmosphere than he’s used to, Lambdin went twice a day into the icy water at the bottom of a waterfall and faced his fear of heights by jumping off the top of the waterfall into the frigid water below. The final challenge was a 5,200-foot climb up Mt. Snezka, in windy, foggy, brutally cold conditions, wearing only shorts.
“Aside from some of his techniques it was really a week of kind of testing boundaries,” said Lambdin, who also draws inner strength from a deep faith in God. “When you’re looking for a mental edge, to have someone show me I’m a little more capable than I realize, that’s a huge advantage in the sports world.”
Poos said that any of the top seeds this week, including Lambdin, are capable of winning. With so much talent and only two Olympic spots available, he said, an athlete’s success could come down to who handles the pressure best as well as who’s on top of his game that day.
Lambdin is ready.
“The Olympics has always been touted as the highest of highs in the sport so, honestly, as long as I can remember (I’ve wanted to be an Olympian),” he said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want it.”