It was a stunning display of universal respect and admiration. One by one the international teams at the 2005 Taekwondo World Championships in Madrid, Spain, stood in line to congratulate the Texas threesome of Steven, Mark and Diana Lopez—the first time that three siblings had ever won world crowns in the same year in any sport.
The martial arts family from Sugar Land, Texas (pop. 63,328), will attempt to duplicate that momentous feat later this week, as the first sibling trio in 104 years to compete for the U.S. Olympic team. This time their quest will be for the ultimate in sport: gold medals at the Summer Games in Beijing.
“After those world championships, I was like, ‘There’s no reason why we can’t all make the Olympic team,’” says Steven, 29, an Olympic champion in 2000 and 2004. “To be able to experience the Olympics together, to walk into the opening ceremonies in the Olympic village, that was my new dream. So many times I talked to them about my experiences, and now we are going to make experiences together.”
Making it a full family affair is the presence of the Lopezes’ oldest brother, Jean, who coaches his siblings. Back in 1983, their father, Julio, enrolled Jean, then 9, in a taekwondo class, setting the stage for Steven, Mark, and Diana to eventually follow. Training quarters were the family’s two-car garage.
After medaling more than 30 times in competition, including a silver medal at the 1995 world championships, Jean put aside his own ambitions to assist his brothers and sister in achieving their dreams, retiring from active competition in 1997. He never participated in an Olympics, because taekwondo wasn’t added to the Summer Games’ official lineup until 2000, the year Steven won his first Olympic gold medal.
Taekwondo dates back more than 2,000 years in Korean culture and is best described as a self-defense method—using kicks, punches and blocks—similar to karate. The Olympics will employ a three-round format of three minutes each, with points scored by either knocking out an opponent, outscoring him or her on points, or by default if an opponent is tagged with three penalty points. Points are earned by placement of punches to the body as well as kicks to the head or body. Given its physical dangers, one might wonder what possessed Diana to take up the sport.
“I had to learn to defend myself,” says Diana, 24, who remembers as a child leaving the dinner table to wash her hands, only to return and find her food gone. “I would look at Steven, and I was like, ‘I have to defend myself.’ But I always had my oldest brother to take care of me.”
“And now she defends me!” Jean, 34, chimes in. “She’s the toughest of the group.”
Steven, who at 175 pounds will compete in the welterweight division, is one of the sport’s most decorated athletes and has been an encouraging role model for his younger brother and sister. “To see Steven there supporting us just shows what a great person he is,” says Mark, 26, who, like Diana, will fight as a featherweight. “He always adds on to what Jean has to say, and it really empowers us.”
As you might imagine, competition was heated among the four growing up. And while they all found a positive outlet through taekwondo, they maintain an active rivalry.
“Always, no matter what sport, no matter what game, all of the time,” Diana concedes. “And Steven sets that bar again. A simple fun volleyball game turns into this competitive . . .”
“It’s the finals at the Olympics for us!” adds Jean, finishing her sentence.
Inspiration never has been very far away for all four Lopezes, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua in 1972. “They came from a Third World country not knowing how to speak English and were able to create a platform for us and give us opportunities to be able to reach levels that in Nicaragua they had never been able to achieve,” says Steven with admiration. Win or lose, competing in the Olympics together will generate a lifetime of memories for the history-making Lopez family.