Back in 2000, it was only after Steven Lopez won his gold medal in taekwondo at the Sydney Olympics that all hell broke loose in the arena. In his delirium, his oldest brother, Jean, who is Steven's full-time coach, hopped a barrier and was cut off by security guards.
"But he's my brother," Jean protested. "Wouldn't you do the same thing?" On the opposite side of the arena, Steven's younger sister, Diana, was also paying little heed to the barriers in front of her.
"But I'm the little sister," she shouted at the large gentlemen who were grabbing her by the shoulders, "I'm supposed to be like this." Through it all, youngest brother, Mark, the most naturally excitable one, had managed to keep his cool. But he, too, was slinking onto the floor through an unmanned divider. Yes, the competition was good, but the postgame was better.
That was the Lopez family in 2000. Now, in '08, there will be no need to scream at security or high jump the barriers. All four Lopezes will be on the floor. Jean, a former world silver medalist, will be the head coach of the U.S. team and three of his four charges during the competition will be his siblings. Steven is back to try to win a third title at welterweight. Mark and Diana will make their Olympic debuts at featherweight.
The trio made history at the World Championships in '05 when all three won gold medals. Last year, Steven was crowned again, while Mark and Diana took bronzes. They will be the first trio of U.S. siblings to make the same Olympic team in over a century and they will try to become the first to go home with titles.
Theirs is a classic American-dream tale of a determined immigrant family striving and achieving. Their parents, Julio and Ondina, came to New York from Nicaragua and eventually settled in Texas, where Julio worked as an engineer. The family garage became the training ground, with holes dotting the walls next to oil stains. Those Houston summers in the garage made the place a sauna, although the kids would time their workout for times when Ondina would run the dryer in order to catch a brief breeze. These days, Jean runs a taekwondo school in Houston, where the siblings train.
The other thing I recall that night in 2000 was the phone bill. See, Ondina has always been too nervous to watch her kids compete in person, so she stayed home from both Sydney and Athens, awaiting word of Steven's performance by Internet and telephone.
"It's dangerous to sit next to my mom when we fight," Steven says. "Anyone sitting next to her get bruises all over."
After Steven won eight years ago, the family came into the Sports Illustrated offices at the main press center in Sydney to phone Ondina, friends and cousins and everyone else they could think of. "Yes, mom, we'll be home soon," the kids told her, as Julio stared proudly at the medal he gently placed on a table.
Last year, the siblings coaxed their mother into a promise. If all three of them made the Olympic team, Ondina would come and watch them in China. Now, she must make good on the promise, although it may behoove her seat neighbor to bring some armor for protection.
Despite having the same coach and same garage, the Lopezes have distinct styles. At 6-foot-2, Steven is a lean and rangy scientist, and can bounce after his foe on his left leg for what seems like an hour, waiting for the right moment to flick out the right one. Mark is the showman and dramatist. Jean has coaxed him into making attacks that are less risky and spectacular, but watch for the back flip after each victory. Diana is rabid and sometimes jumpy, and the swings in fortune in her matches reflect her own swings of emotion.
Ask the three of them about their unique bond, and it seems their self-confidence and trust in one another was born at home. "We always have each other," says Diana, "to tell us how much we should believe in ourselves."
In Sydney, I saw that belief carry them over barriers. In Beijing, I'll be watching to see if it will carry them into history.