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The Lopez Family Still Pursuing Olympic Taekwondo Quests

Whenever a baby arrives in the Lopez family in the year before an Olympics, Steven Lopez wins a medal in taekwondo

The key to the men's 80-kilogram taekwondo competition at the Rio Games may be Liliana Marie Rogowski.

She's 1, and isn't exactly competitive yet.

But if you like either superstitions or coincidence, here's why she could be a factor: Since 1999, whenever a baby arrives in the Lopez family in the year before an Olympics, Steven Lopez wins a medal in taekwondo. It's a trend he hopes to continue on Friday, when he competes on the Olympic stage for the fifth time and looks to add to the medals he claimed in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

"In '99, Jean, my older brother, had a baby and she was my inspiration," Lopez said. "In 2003, he had another baby. In 2007, he had another baby. In 2011, no babies — and I didn't do well. And now Liliana, my sister Diana's baby, was born in 2015. So I'm ready to go."

Family is everything to Lopez, and taekwondo is the family business. Jean Lopez, the oldest sibling, is Steven's coach. Younger brother Mark Lopez is his training partner here at the Rio Games. Younger sister Diana Lopez spent part of the summer working out with her brothers, and will be watching Friday from Houston where she, her husband and daughter live.

In 2008, Steven, Mark and Diana all medaled at the Beijing Games. Mark and Diana have transitioned out of the day-to-day grind; Mark wears a suit to work now and has a job in finance, while Diana is a teacher. Meanwhile, Steven Lopez remains in the game, and it's hardly a sure thing that Tokyo won't be on his mind in four years either.

But at 37, thoughts about the family legacy within the sport are more prevalent in his mind now than they were at past games.

"It's just an ordinary family that's been able to do extraordinary things," Steven Lopez said. "It's through faith in God, love of family and dedication and sacrifice. My parents immigrated from Nicaragua, a very poor country, and what my parents showed me is the work ethic and to appreciate every single thing this country has offered me. So in training, we take into account the way we were brought up, to be the very best."

The family patriarch, Julio Lopez, was an athlete while growing up in Nicaragua, competing in track and swimming. He and his wife Ondina eventually moved to New York and one of their ways their kids got used to things in America was through sports. And once they all tried taekwondo, they were basically hooked.

"Not only are we like the epitome of the American dream, we've been successful at the sport for so long that we know the Lopez name will always be part of the taekwondo world," Diana Lopez said. "I think our legacy will always be there. My brothers and I have carved a path for all taekwondo players, not just in the U.S."

They are a proud family, with good reason. You can't even add up how many regional and national titles they've all won along the way.

They're also a tough family, perhaps no one more than Steven. In one recent competition, his shoulder was dislocated 10 times, but he'd just have it popped back in and go out and keep fighting.

And in the London Games, he was bothered by injury as well — he tried to compete with a broken leg. Yes, he was trying to jump, balance and kick people with a broken leg.

"There's some times in our lives when you kind of look up and then go 'Why? Why did this happen?'" Steven Lopez said. "Unfortunately, one of those instances happened to me two weeks before my competition date when I got injured and I went out there and tried the best I could. The doctor shot me full of lidocaine that morning and I did the best I could."

He lost in the first round.

"I couldn't go out like that," he said.

So he's still here, and appreciating the irony. In 2000, he remembers some saying he was too young to win — and he got gold. In 2012, he was the oldest competitor out of the 128 at the London Games and it was widely presumed the end had arrived.

Four years later, he's still here.

Add another chapter to the Lopez legacy.

"He's the greatest of all time in our sport," U.S. teammate Stephen Lambdin said. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. You can spend five minutes with this guy and get a massive amount of experience. Anytime he stops and starts to get serious and talks taekwondo, everybody in the room gets quiet and listens. There's nobody in the history of the sport that has his experience and general determination. Like I said, he's the greatest of all time."

Lopez won't say definitively if this is the last Olympics for him. But there's a niece and a nephew coming up as well, so it seems at least somewhat likely that there's a Lopez in Tokyo four years from now.

"It's a responsibility," Lopez said, "and our family embraced it."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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