Olympic Faith: Three-time medalist, Steven Lopez rolls with the punches of Olympic life

July 12, 2016

HOUSTON — With his back to the ground, Steven Lopez’s shoulder had popped out of its socket once again. In the middle of the bronze medal match of the 2015 Pan American Games, trainers held the three-time Olympic medalist’s arm steady, pushing the dislocated arm back into place. 

Lopez’s face grimaced as the adjustments continued, then suddenly he was back on his feet, fighting again. When the match ended, Lopez walked away with the bronze-medal. A year later, Lopez would win gold at the 2016 Pan American Games, a feat he hopes to do again this August at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 17 through Aug. 20.

Taekwondo is a combination of accuracy, power and control with grace and movement of ancient martial arts, that makes for an impressive contest. Fighters score points by landing kicks and punches on the torso and head of their opponent — the fighter with the most points wins the bout. 

The five-time Olympian, who attends St. Theresa Catholic Church in Sugar Land, shared his story with the Texas Catholic Herald before he heads to Brazil next month to compete. 

Q: You’ve been in Taekwondo for most of your life, and at 38, you’re the most decorated athlete in Taekwondo. How did your journey in martial arts begin?
A: I started taekwondo because of my older brother. He was doing it and, being the younger brother, I kind of wanted to do what he was doing and just wanted to follow in his footsteps. But the one who really encouraged it was my father because he loved martial arts and he never had an opportunity to try any kind of martial arts. He always watched the Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee movies and read up on it as much as he could, but coming from Nicaragua he didn’t really have the opportunity to really try it. 
When my mother immigrated to New York City, and they had my older brother, they thought it would be a good idea for self-defense, self-discipline, all the character development that martial arts teaches you, that’s why my dad put my brother into learning some martial arts type of lessons. I followed suit, and (along with) my younger brother Mark and my sister Diana, we all did martial arts together.

Q: The Olympics start next month, but you’ve been four other Olympic Games before. What does going to Rio de Janeiro mean to you?
A: You know this might be my last one. Going to Rio de Janeiro is a huge feat, it’s a combative sport and for me honestly ... I went through a lot of injuries last year — and just my body being able to recuperate and be ready for this physical year. I’m happy and proud of that. 

But at the same time, it’s one step closer to my ultimate goal and dream which is to be on that first place podium and win another gold medal for the United States. 

It’s very gratifying just to be representing my country once again at the Olympic Games, which is the big show. It comes once every four years. I’m just very honored and happy, and thank God that I’m actually healthy. I’m also looking forward to Brazil and the Latin energy it has. The beaches, the Cristo Redentor, it’s like seeing the Great Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. Just being there for the Olympic Games, I’m excited for the energy and to see everyone there.

Q: What does it feel like to enter the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics?
A: Man, it’s like you’re finally there, you’ve arrived. If you can imagine, you’ve visualized it, you think about it all the time, and finally you walk in through those gates and that hall and you walk into the floor and you see a hundred thousand people and it’s just amazing. I’ve never been to the Super Bowl or the World Cup but I feel like it’s something like that.

Q: Taekwondo is a rough, physical contact sport. What’s been the hardest part of your journey so far?
A: In taekwondo, there’s a ranking system in the world. To qualify for the Olympics, you have to be Top Six in the world to qualify in your region. I tried to make Top Six, but I had dislocated my shoulder and was fighting through the injury and at the World Championships and the Pan American Games, it kept dislocating. 

In one competition, it dislocated nine or 10 times. It was really painful, really difficult, but it’s what I had to do in order to try and qualify. Finally last October, I had no choice but to have surgery and now my shoulder is getting back to normal. For a while it was difficult to try to put on this brace that keeps your shoulder in place — it wraps around your chest, keeping your shoulder in your socket, preventing it from going out of socket. It was really difficult to fight with this thing that impedes your breathing. 

It was tough. But in spite of that brace, my shoulder would still come out of socket. And though it was difficult, now I’m so happy and now I’m able to train and train at my best. Like in 2012, I broke my leg and I wasn’t able to perform at my best. All I ask and pray for is that I’m able to perform at my best. 

Q: What keeps you motivated to continue training now and through the Olympics?
A: From a very young age, my parents always pushed me, encouraged me to do something that I enjoy and love. They didn’t tell me what that was, but whatever it is that I chose to do, just to be the very best you can be at it. 

Don’t be mediocre, stand out, make your mark, taekwondo was just the vehicle that I chose. I was barely nine years old and that’s when I first saw taekwondo as an exhibition sport at the 1988 Olympic Games. I remember at the opening ceremony hearing the sportscaster saying that taekwondo was going to be an exhibition sport for the first time. I remember looking over to my friend and going “Gee, taekwondo is going to be an Olympic sport now. Maybe we can be Olympians one day.” 

And at that moment was when I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that was to be an Olympian and an Olympic champion. In my mind, it wasn’t ever a question of if, but when it was going to happen. And I feel this is what I was made to do. 

Faith has always been a very important part of my life, a very key component to what I build my success on and I always prayed that if I ever found a platform that I can give back, I would. Being a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a bronze medalist and my family having the success it’s had in this sport, it transcended the sport. 

Q: How did it feel to stand on that podium and win an Olympic medal?
A: Winning my first Olympic medal in 2000 was something I’ve daydreamed about, over and over again, for a long time. I wrote in my journal: “Steven Lopez, 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist.” 
I remember being on that first-place podium, with my hand over my heart listening to the national anthem. Everyone in the stadium stood up, seeing my flag rise above the others. The pride I felt, I remember actually pinching myself: was this a very, very good dream? Or is this really happening? Is this real? 
The strangest memory came to mind. When I was a little boy, I asked my mom, “Why do some guys and girls cry when they win Olympic medals?” She told me it was because they’re really happy. This always confused the me back then, because I always thought when you’re happy you don’t cry, you laugh or smile. When I stepped down and went backstage, it hit me. I was just laughing, crying, an overwhelming emotion and joy. All these years of sacrifice not just on my part, but with my teammates, my parents, and all those behind the scenes who helped me in some way achieve that goal. I could have died at that moment and been happy.

Q: What passages from Scripture do you find helpful in your life?
A. You know it’s cheesy, but First Corinthians 13, where it talks about love, how “it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” is very important to me. It defines what love is for me.

Q:  Who are some of your heroes or who inspires you?
A: I don’t have to look too far for heroes. My parents are heroes to me. My father and my mother, coming from a very poor country like Nicaragua, to Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Caribbean region and being able to leave that country and move to the United States, to New York City, not knowing how to speak English and just for that hope because they had hope for the American dream for finding opportunities for their future family to be. 

Muhammad Ali was a great personality, he was a great champion within the ring, but just the hope that he brought to a lot of people outside the ring. My father worked 12 or 14 hours to provide for our family and I saw that growing up. All my family are Olympians, which brings us a lot of honor especially them. 

I also train at the Olympic Training Center a lot, where I see people who are Paralympians and they’re missing eyesight, limbs and body parts and I see them pushing themselves. Sometimes I look at myself and say, “Gosh, I’m tired, my legs are sore and I don’t feel like training.” And then I see them, and everything is that much more difficult for them. If you’re blind, you don’t have your sight, and they’re in there pushing themselves. That’s inspiration for me. I try to keep things in perspective; I’ve been very blessed with having my health. That’s what inspires me, seeing people out there with a lot of obstacles and challenges in their lives and still pushing forward.

Q: Your family is known throughout taekwondo, and they eventually joined you at the Olympics. What was that like? 
A: I thought the 2000 Olympics were going to be my first and last, that I’d move on to the next chapter of my life. But I was so inspired by winning, that I couldn’t step away and won again in 2004. My brother Mark and sister Diane would ask me what the Olympic Village was like, seeing all the athletes, the whole event. It’s one thing to tell them about it, but in 2008, they were so close to joining the Olympic Team. And when they made the Olympic team that was a huge motivation for me. 

Our mom had not gone to any of my previous Olympic Games, so one day I cornered her in the kitchen and talked to her about it. (I said:) “Mom, listen. I don’t know how many more Olympics I have in me, but if all your children make the 2008 Olympic Team, you better go.” “Okay, okay,” she said. But she must have doubted that it would happen, but it was a miracle and a blessing when Mark, Diane, our oldest brother Jean, who coached us, and I went to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing together.

After 2008, 2012, and now here I am so many years later still striving to feel that feeling again. That’s what pushes me and gets me excited. 

Q: What does the Houston community as a whole mean for you?
A: ‘Home is where the heart is’ they say, and Sugar Land and Houston are my home. I know the vibe, the energy, I know the people here. It’s been very supportive. 

I have keys to the cities of Sugar Land and Houston. I think Houston is a sports-enthusiastic city. There are a lot of Olympians from the Houston area, and it just bring me a lot of pride to be able to go out there and compete and know that there are people back home sending me their prayers and positive energy, it gives me that much more strength to go out there and be my very best.