Friday, July 2, 2004

He plastered them all, Sisyphus with Spackle. What else could a father do?

Time and again, Julio Lopez patched the divot-pocked walls of his family’s garage in Sugar Land, Texas. One maddening hole at a time. Yet time and again, the cracks reappeared, like Tupac releasing another posthumous track.

The children — and taekwondo — were to blame.

“In a day or two the holes would always be back,” recalls Steve Lopez, Julio’s son. “Because we’d kick each other into [the walls].”

Everyone trained on the garage’s oil-stained floor. Jean, the oldest son. Younger brothers Steve and Mark. Even little Diana. Plus a few of their neighborhood friends. There wasn’t much room to maneuver — Julio had to move the car, day after day — but somehow they managed. Managed to batter the place, too, with wheel kicks and heel strikes and constant sparring. And so they hit upon a novel solution, in part because dad just couldn’t keep up.

“We put posters up, to block the holes,” Steve Lopez says. “Little sayings like ‘Carpe Diem’ and ‘Be the Best,’ just to remind us we were in there for a purpose. To fulfill our dreams.”

More than a decade later, those dreams are reality. Mark and Diana are elite taekwondo fighters, regulars on the United States national team. Steve is the 25-year-old poster boy, a two-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist. Jean owns a school and coaches all three siblings.

When Steve takes to the mat at the Athens Olympics this August, he’ll be fighting for more than himself and country.

“[It’s] a family affair,” Lopez says. “[Taekwondo] keeps us all together. It helps to have a family that does the same thing you do. • • •

Papa provided the first push. Right out of bed. Julio Lopez didn’t know much about taekwondo, a Korean martial art that became a full-fledged Olympic sport at the Sydney Games. But he grasped the value of hard work.

Rising before dawn, Lopez roused his children. Some days they ran. Other days they did jumping jacks. Maybe push-ups. After an hour of exercise, dad ushered them onto a school bus.

“I hated it at the time,” Steve Lopez says. “‘Papa, I don’t want to wake up, please.’ But I thank my father now, because those are the little things that have made a huge difference in my life.”

Born in Nicaragua, Julio emigrated to America in 1973, pregnant wife Ondina in tow. A structural engineer, he landed in New York and took at job at a sporting goods factory, making Yankees hats and pinstriped uniforms.

His English was rudimentary, rendering his engineering training useless. So Lopez went back to school, still working to support his family. Ultimately, he was offered a better job in Sugar Land, a suburb of then-booming Houston.

The family moved west, where he and son Jean came across a martial arts studio. The neon sign read KARATE. Julio loved sports, devoured Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris flicks. He wanted his children to learn discipline. This would do.

“They actually taught taekwondo,” Jean says. “But the sign said karate because that’s what everybody knew.”

Eight years old, Jean began to bring home trophies. Lots of them. By age 15, his Korean instructor, Jang Hee Pak, had nothing left to teach him. Meanwhile, younger brother Steve trailed him like a loose shoelace, mimicking his kicks and punches. At 9, he too was a black belt.

Mark Lopez followed suit. So did baby sister Diana, despite Steve’s efforts to talk her out of it.

“She was on the varsity volleyball team when she was in ninth grade,” he says. “I told her to stay with that, excel and do something different than what your brothers are doing. She said no.”

The family garage became an incubator. The siblings and their friends — like Jason Torres, now an elite fighter — practiced twice daily, hours at a time. Steve was 9; Jean, 13. Battling around toolboxes, they were careful with their kicks: an errant foot might end up impaled on a hedge trimmer.

In the blistering Texas summers, Ondina Lopez brought the children ice water; during the winters, she ran the family dryer to keep them warm. Fiercely competitive, the four pushed each other — in basketball, in video games, even at the dinner table.

“My poor dad was working overtime to feed his kids, and we ate so much it was a competition in itself,” Steve says. “He would go to [the store], buy $250 worth of groceries. And the first one to the refrigerator was the one who gets to eat.”

Inspired by 1980s chop-socky films like “Best of the Best” — the story of a Korea vs. America karate tournament that Jean now calls “a little cheesy” — the Lopez children dreamed of bigger things, visualizing international titles and holding mock press conferences.

When Steve saw taekwondo debut as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he vowed that he would someday compete at the Games. Snickering classmates called him “Karate Kid.” Lopez ignored them.

“I decided right then and there, the way some kids decide to be a fireman or astronaut,” he says. “It was almost an obsession.”

• • •

Lopez made it, of course, winning gold in 2000. But it could have — should have — been his older brother on the podium.

Long before Steve captured the first American medal in taekwondo, a teenaged Jean was making a name for the family. And doing it the hard way. At the national level, taekwondo was a nascent sport, with scant infrastructure and a moribund talent pipeline.

In Asia and Europe, top-flight international competition is easy to come by; in Texas, it took hours to drive to a low-level regional tournament. Fighting for the U.S. junior squad, Jean traded blows with opponents who had 10 to 20 times more experience.

“This was my coaching,” he recalls. “I’d step in the ring, throw a particular kick and get hit in the head. I’d go, ‘Whoa, that didn’t work out. I’ll go back to the drawing board and teach my siblings not to do this.’”

Julio Lopez tried to help, briefly serving as Jean’s coach. Dad had little technical knowledge, though, and his unbridled enthusiasm often got the best of him.

At one tournament, Jean complained of low energy. Julio was supposed to give his son a single sugar pill; instead, he handed him a mouthful. Jean nearly gagged before spitting the tablets out.

“I said, ‘Dad, man, we can’t do this anymore,’” Jean recalls with a laugh. “From that point on, I pretty much coached myself.”

Jean won a silver medal at the 1995 World Championships, almost unheard of for an American male at the time. Still, he couldn’t shake his disappointment at missing the 1992 Barcelona Games after U.S. officials didn’t attempt to qualify his weight class for the scaled-down demonstration event.

When Lopez discovered that the 1996 Atlanta Games wouldn’t include taekwondo, he left the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and returned to Houston, where he partnered with former national teammate Paris Amani to open his own dojo. The Lopez siblings now train there, as do national team members Torres and Mandy Meloon.

Diana, 20, nearly joined Steve in Athens, advancing to the Olympic trials final but losing to Nia Abdallah. Mark Lopez, 22, came up short in an earlier semifinal, avoiding a finals match with his brother. Jean watched both from the sidelines, disappointed but proud.

“For me to be able to inspire other athletes, that’s what gives me solace,” says Jean, now 30. “It’s a different type of satisfaction, a lot more selfless. Every time they win, I win. It’s just not me. It’s a team.”

That much was evident in Sydney, where Steve topped South Korea’s Joon-Sik Sin in the gold medal match. As little brother fell to his knees, Jean raced from the stands to embrace him. Diana attempted the same, only to be stopped by security. Julio wept, while Ondina prayed from the family’s home in Texas — too nervous to watch, let alone make the trip to Australia.

“That medal belongs to me,” Steve says. “But it’s taken so many people — my family, friends, teammates — that it not only belongs to me, but to so many people. I couldn’t have won it without them.”

• • •

He closes his eyes, envisioning Greece. Steve Lopez is pacing, a tiger in a cage. The locker room is empty, save a lone, final opponent.

Lopez thinks of proms and homecomings, everything he’s given up. He thinks of his brother, paving the way. Thinks of his family, his sparring partners, sitting in the stands but somehow in the room. Right here. Right now.

“I’m not going to let anything stand in my way,” Lopez says. “If that happens to be another man standing on the other side of the ring, so be it.”

Though Lopez is a defending world champ, a second gold medal won’t come easy. He’s moving up in class, from lightweight to welterweight. Taekwondo’s scoring system is notoriously fickle. And if the hostile crowds at last year’s Pan Am games were any indication, American athletes won’t be particularly popular in Greece.

Then again, Lopez doesn’t care — any more than he cared about the classmates who teased him, only to later ask for his autograph.

“It really doesn’t matter,” he says. “I came from a garage. It got luxurious when they put some carpet in there.”

Even now, the carpeted carport remains a no-frills place. Though the Lopezes practice at Jean’s studio, they still rent out their old training space to visiting athletes.

Recently, Jean opened the garage’s manual door to a friend from California, a fellow taekwondo fighter who wanted to see where it all began. The friend took one look and shook his head. Are you kidding?

“I never said it was a workout facility,” Lopez recalls with a laugh. “That’s all we had. And it still has holes. We’re not the best landlords.”

Who has time? Athens nears. Papa can take a break. The garage band is all grown up.

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