This story appears in the Sept. 10, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Special reporting by Lauren Green. Portrait photographs by Chris Covatta and Kohjiro Kinno, inset photo by Al Tielemans.
In April 2006, 23-year-old Gaby Joslin was in Bonn, Germany, chasing her dream in the sport to which she had devoted herself, taekwondo. A recent graduate of Texas A&M and a member of the U.S. World University Games team in ’03, she hoped that a good showing at the German Open would improve her chances of making the ’08 Olympics.
Before college, Joslin had spent nine years at Elite Taekwondo, a gym in Sugar Land, Texas, run by Jean Lopez, who coached many athletes on the national team, and his younger brother Steven, who had won gold medals at the 2000 and ’04 Olympics. During junior high and high school, she lived in The Woodlands, and she would make the 60-minute trip to Sugar Land nearly every day. At A&M, while holding down assorted full-time jobs, she put taekwondo practice ahead of her studies. “I dedicated my everything to Jean and to Jean’s program,” she says.
Taekwondo is a martial art with roots that can be traced back 2,000 years. The South Korean military emphasized it after World War II and exported it around the world in the 1960s. It focuses on jumping and spinning kicks and features strict discipline and a regimented hierarchy; athletes address their coach as Master or Sir. Questioning any instruction is not done. According to the 1999 book, Taekwondo: The State of the Art: “It does not matter whether what the instructor asks is possible, or whether a student feels like doing that particular drill or not. In response to a command, the only proper response is ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘Yes, ma’am’. . . . Absolute respect takes on the form of something deeper—a willingness to obey.”
Joslin started taking taekwondo at the YMCA when she was six and earned a black belt at 12. She would put in extra work after practice and volunteer to teach other kids in her spare time. The move to Elite gave her the best shot at representing the U.S. in Beijing. “That’s where you went if you wanted to be an Olympian,” she says. “You trained under Jean Lopez.”
Jean was a U.S. coach of both men and women at the 2004, ’08 and ’12 Games. Now 45, he is one of four siblings, all Olympians. Steven, 39, a five-time world champion, is still competing. Mark, 36, won a silver in Beijing and Diana, 34, won a bronze. At the 2005 world championships in Madrid, Steven, Mark and Diana became the first three siblings to win world titles in the same sport. Jean has coached them all.
Taekwondo athletes typically train in small groups, and those groups often spend all day together. In Sugar Land, athletes were encouraged to get two tattoos: elite and the lopez four, which referred to Jean, Steven, Mark and Diana.
Steven (in red) won a bronze medal in Beijing—one of his three Olympic medals—all under the guidance of Jean (right, in blue).
Shortly before the German Open, Joslin says Jean told her to lose 20 pounds so she could compete as a bantamweight, at 122 pounds. She was confused but didn’t question Jean—per the sport’s code. He also told her that he wouldn’t be traveling to Germany, so Steven offered to be her coach. “Jean has programmed me to have blind faith,” she recalls thinking at the time. “So I will rely on Steven.”
But Joslin wanted some guidance. She was battling a hip injury and was worried about competing in a different class. One day, after sitting in a sauna for six hours to lose weight, Joslin found herself with Steven in an elevator of their Bonn hotel. “Hello, Sir,” she said. Then, according to a complaint filed later in federal court, Joslin says that Steven didn’t answer but grabbed her hips, pushed her against the wall and told her, “You feel great as a bantam.”
Joslin was alarmed, but she felt she couldn’t confront him if she wanted his help making the Olympic team. She left the elevator and didn’t tell anyone about the incident for a dozen years.
The team would be in Germany for another week. Joslin says she kept trying to talk to Steven about the competition and her training, but he ignored her. She wrote him a letter, outlining her concerns, and she hoped it would be the start of a constructive athlete-coach relationship.
Shortly after she handed him the letter, Joslin recalls, Steven came to her room. He ignored the letter and, she alleges in a lawsuit filed in May, put a pornographic movie on the room’s TV and began to massage her. “Next thing I know, he’s rubbing my hips, where I had the injury,” she says. Then, Joslin says, Steven turned her over onto her stomach, pulled down her pants and penetrated her. “It hit me like freaking darkness,” she says. “At that point, what am I gonna do? In a foreign country? I just remember the weight of the world. I went somewhere else in my mind. I just waited for it to be over.”
Steven has not yet responded to Joslin’s allegations in court, and through his lawyer, declined to elaborate to SI on what he told USA Today in a June 2017 story that discussed some of the allegations. “I’ve never—nothing, nothing at all,” he said when asked if he had sexually assaulted or committed any inappropriate behavior with any woman. “Nothing like that. Nothing close to that.”
Joslin lost her first-round match in Bonn the next day. After returning home, she decided to leave taekwondo. Even now, she says, “I miss it so bad, but I can’t do it. It’s too broken.”
The Lopez family is the face of taekwondo in the U.S. In 2004, Steven was named one of People’s 50 Hottest Bachelors. He appeared on a celebrity dating show in ’12. The family has been featured on Ellen and Oprah. In 2009 the four siblings came out with a book called Family Power that focused on their hardscrabble upbringing, first in New York City and then in Texas, as the children of Nicaraguan immigrants.
But according to the class-action lawsuit filed by Joslin and three other women, and amended on Aug. 24 to include another plaintiff, Jean’s and Steven’s winning image hid a dark truth: They used their power and influence—enhanced by the sport’s code of obedience—to systematically rape and abuse women and underage girls. (Mark and Diana are not named in any complaint.) The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, not only accuses Steven and Jean of sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking, but it also alleges that the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo, the sport’s governing body, “exposed hundreds of young female athletes to two known adult predators” from at least 2004 to April ’18. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say they have spoken with 29 other women who say they too were abused by Jean or Steven.
In response to the allegations, USOC spokesperson Patrick Sandusky said in a statement to SI, “The United States Olympic Committee is deeply focused on critical initiatives and collaboration across the entire Olympic and Paralympic community to protect, support and empower America’s athletes. We have collectively made significant progress and will continue to make athlete safety our highest priority.”
A month before the suit was filed, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which has exclusive authority over sexual-abuse cases in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movements, ruled Jean “permanently ineligible” after finding, according to USA Today, that he was “guilty of sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct involving a minor.”
Like Steven, Jean, through his lawyer, declined to address the allegations for this story, but in the 2017 USA Today article he said, “I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone.” He appealed his ban, requesting arbitration, and in advance of that hearing SafeSport removed Jean’s name from its sanctions database.
Created by the USOC, SafeSport is an independent organization with a small staff to conduct its own investigations. It does not have subpoena power and can’t arrest anyone. As in Jean’s case, SafeSport need not state the specific accusation or name the accuser in releasing its findings. On May 7, three days after the lawsuit was filed, USA Taekwondo ruled that Steven, who had been under investigation for sexual misconduct for more than a year, was temporarily suspended. He competed at the U.S. Open last January and at the U.S. team trials a month after that, making his 24th national team.
Three of the plaintiffs in the suit spoke to SI. Their stories point to a pattern of grooming, assault and degradation in a sport where subservience to mentors made the women reluctant to come forward. They allege that Steven and Jean Lopez have taken advantage of that culture to prey on women for more than a decade.
In 2002, 20-year-old Heidi Gilbert was a rising star in taekwondo when she began to train with the Lopezes. She and Jean had been teammates on the national team in 1998. After two years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, she decided to move to Sugar Land. “Their program was kicking ass,” Gilbert says. “Of course, you’re going to pick a successful program.”