Diana Lopez let fly with one final kick before ending her training session,the skin of her bare foot hitting the target with such force that the crisp smacking sound left her coach leaping for joy.
For that,she got a hug and a kiss. That’s high praise in the Lopez family – the flag bearers of taekwondo in the United States.
They’re a family of Nicaraguan heritage,in a sport that was born in Korea,winning medals for America. Steven Lopez is seeking his third Olympic gold medal. Diana Lopez won bronze in Beijing and expects to improve on that this time. Mark Lopez narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympic team,so he’s here as a training partner. And the oldest of Julio and Ondina Lopez’s children is Jean Lopez,the son who coaches each of his younger siblings.
We really do love to get tested under the pressure and see what kind of people we are,” Jean Lopez said. Innately,we all have it in us to want to win,and we have those days that we just want to give up. We want to constantly remind ourselves that we’re fighters on the mat and fighters in life. That kind of philosophy kind of brings a whole,deeper motivation and incentive to want to win – proving to ourselves that we are who we feel that we are.”
Taekwondo in London started on Wednesday. On Thursday,Diana Lopez competes,the first step on another Olympic adventure for the Lopez clan that now calls the Houston area home.
Diana Lopez’s first bout in the under-57-kilogram category will not be easy: She’s facing two-time world champion Hou Yuzhuo of China in the opening round,with quarterfinals,semifinals and then the gold-medal matchup all potentially awaiting later Thursday if she gets past the first fight.
Steven Lopez – gold medalist in 2000 and 2004,bronze winner in 2008 – doesn’t have the easiest of draws,either. On Friday,in the under-80-kilogram division,he’ll meet reigning world bronze medalist Ramin Azizov of Azerbaijan.
I’m so ready,” Diana Lopez said. I’m just remembering all the training that we’ve had for the past four years in Houston,leading up to where I’m at now. I’m just ready to go and show my athleticism,show what I’ve been training for.”
It’s what they’ve all been training a lifetime for,really.
Julio Lopez was an athlete – Olympic sports,mostly,including track and swimming _ while growing up in Nicaragua. He and his wife eventually made their way to New York,learning a new culture,a new language and a new way of life.
Their kids acclimatized through sports,all eventually finding their way to taekwondo,the martial art where kicks and punches will now be scored by a computer system. Jean Lopez,the first-born,became the leader by default.
In short,that means he was coaching long before he ever knew what coaching was.
My parents are immigrants,” Jean Lopez said. ”They moved from Nicaragua from New York and I had to kind of grow up really quick. I was always put in a position where I had to translate for my family and kind of help them,guide them through the American culture. So it was a natural transition for me to coach them. Our family structure is based on hierarchy and my parents have allowed me to make the right decisions for my siblings.”
The siblings have made plenty of right decisions on their own as well. When Jean Lopez was competing,it was only natural for Steven and Mark to follow their big brother. With all three boys involved,it was only natural again for Diana to follow along.
A simple progression that has led to the Olympics,time and time again.
I was born into it,” Diana Lopez said. ”I saw trophies around me all the time. I didn’t really understand it. It was natural for me to go to local tournaments with my mother and watch my brothers compete,and sometimes be left with my mom at home while my dad would take my brothers away to different tournaments and competitions. So I started doing everything they did.”
As a kid,she excelled at plenty of sports,volleyball,track,basketball,whatever. But by the time she was 14,the lone girl of the four Lopez kids knew taekwondo was her passion. Once,while her geography class at home was studying Turkey,she was competing in Turkey,part of an international event in Istanbul. She’s not the little girl tagging along with her big brothers any more.
She is the best female athlete out there,and that’s not just her brother saying that,” Jean Lopez said.
No one knows exactly how many trophies,titles and medals they’ve won. It’s a lot. Hundreds,at least.
And if Steven or Diana wins a medal in London,it will be the fourth straight Olympics where someone from the family has made his or her way to the award podium.
They’re family,and that really makes a difference,” said George Weissfisch,an assistant under Jean Lopez for the London Games. “They support each other,I think,moreso than just a team in general because it’s a team and a family and I think that really helps them a lot in competition. Obviously the technique is there and the skills and so forth,but the big thing is that support,having your family right there with you.”
It is tough love,personified. Diana Lopez was training earlier this week,Jean Lopez shouting out instructions,Mark Lopez sitting nearby to help however she needed. She did a series of about 30 kicks when someone noticed blood had splattered on the pad she was kicking,thanks to a tiny cut that opened on the second toe on her left foot. So a trainer was summoned.
She stopped for a moment.
Let’s go,” Jean Lopez shouted.
Without a word,Diana Lopez did 30 more kicks. Then the trainer arrived,and she did 30 more kicks. An alcohol-soaked pad was applied to clean up the cut,and she broke away for 30 more kicks. Then a bandage was finally slipped around the toe,immediately followed by – you guessed it – 30 more kicks.
She’s cutthroat,” Jean Lopez bragged afterward. She speaks her mind. She works hard. She holds no punches,or no kicks,back.”
She especially won’t at an Olympics,which officially qualifies as a big deal for the family _ because Julio and Ondina Lopez are in town.
They don’t often travel to watch their kids fight. Even now,after tons of national championships and world titles and Olympic medals,being around competitions is often too stressful for them.
This is different. It’s the Olympics. No way the first family of taekwondo in the U.S. wouldn’t all be together for this one.
I need that hug from my mom,” Diana Lopez said. ”She’s the Latin mother that hugs you and says all these sweet things to you in Spanish. It’s just comforting. She also gives me that strength. She’ll tell me that I look ready. She’ll tell me that I’ve been ready for this my whole life. So let’s go. Let’s bring it on.”