RENO, Nevada (February 2, 2016) -- Three U.S. athletes moved a step closer to making their Olympic dreams a reality on Tuesday at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Taekwondo at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nev. Stephen Lambdin (Colleyville, Texas), Steven Lopez (Sugar Land, Texas) and Paige McPherson (Sturgis, S.D.) all earned berths at 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 de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, pending final approval from the United States Olympic Committee.
Lambdin, seeking to make his first Olympic Team, faced 2008 Olympic silver medalist Mark Lopez (Sugar Land, Texas) in the men's heavyweight (+80kg) division. Lopez, a natural featherweight (-68kg), had moved up two weight classes to fight Lambdin. As the top seed in the division, Lambdin needed only one victory to advance, while Lopez needed two straight wins. In a very tactical match, each fighter earned a point via kyong-gos, or warnings, but the difference was a left-leg roundhouse kick by Lambdin in the third round to pull out a 2-1 victory.
Getting ready to fight the smaller and quicker Lopez required a different means of preparation and tactics for Lambdin.
"After doing a lot of video review of him (Lopez) before this, he scores a lot of his points off of turns," said Lambdin. "The whole goal was to keep him from picking up big points at any one moment. I spent the first two rounds trying to get used to his pace. The first two rounds were really jittery, but the third round we kind of settled in and closed it out."
The weight division that saw the most contests on the day was the men's welterweight (-80kg) class. It began with a best-of-three series between Jaysen Ishida (Waikele, Hawaii) and 2012 Olympic featherweight (-68kg) bronze medalist Terrence Jennings (Alexandria, Va.), with the winner earning the right to face top-seeded and three-time Olympic medalist Steven Lopez.
Jennings won the opening fight in dramatic fashion, with a three-point head kick in the waning seconds to pull out a 4-2 win. Ishida returned the favor with a golden-point win in overtime of the second match after the fighters fought to a 2-2 tie in regulation. In the third and deciding match, Jennings took control in the second round and went on to prevail by a 5-2 score.
That set the stage for a showdown of Olympic medalists to decide who would move a step closer to Rio. The top-seeded Lopez needed just one victory to advance. A tactical first two rounds between Lopez and Jennings ended with Lopez holding a 2-1 edge. Things heated up late in the third round when Jennings scored a three-point head kick to take a 4-3 lead, but then received a kyong-go for falling down which knotted the score at 4-4, sending the match into an overtime period.
In the extra session, Jennings received a kyong-go for a trip and then received another kyong-go when he appeared to land a wayward punch to Lopez's face. A review of the video was conducted to determine if the punch did indeed land illegally and the scoring was upheld, giving Lopez the victory.
"Terrence is a very smart fighter and he's very technical," said Lopez. "It was a good match and I didn't expect anything less."
As for the punch that determined the outcome of the fight, Lopez explained it as part of taekwondo.
"It hit above the shoulder and any punch above the shoulder is an illegal punch. With this match, you have to be a smart fighter. Kyung-gos do play a huge role in this match and that's a huge element to this game these days."
Now on the verge of qualifying for his fifth Olympic Games, the 37-year-old Lopez says he still enjoys everything about the sport.
"This is what I do and I enjoy doing it. When I'm 50 or 60 years old I can look back and know that I did everything I could in this sport."
In the women's welterweight (+67kg) division, top seed and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist McPherson faced off against Cheyenne Lewis (Elk Grove, Calif.), who also was moving up a weight division from her usual featherweight class. It was a tight 2-0 contest in favor of McPherson through two rounds but the scoring heated up in round three. An exchange between the two fighters resulted in a situation where Lewis' headgear came in contact with the foot sensors of McPherson as Lewis fell to the ground, awarding three points to McPherson and securing an eventual 5-3 victory.
"Cheyenne has definitely proven that she's a really, really good athlete," McPherson said. "So I knew that I had to give it my all, I had to train as hard as I can as if it were the Olympics because I knew that she was such a great competitor."
Women's -67kg results
Paige McPherson (Sturgis, S.D.) def. Cheyenne Lewis (Elk Grove, Calif.), 5-3
Men's -80kg kg results
Terrence Jennings (Alexandria, Va.) def. Jaysen Ishida (Waikele, Hawaii), 4-2
Ishida def. Jennings, 1-0 in overtime
Jennings def. Ishida, 5-2
Steven Lopez (Sugar Land, Texas) def. Jennings, 1-0 in overtime
Men's +80kg results
Stephen Lambdin (Colleyville, Texas) def. Mark Lopez (Sugar Land, Texas), 2-1