Taekwondo champ Steven Lopez says his family’s mantra has always been to aspire to greatness.
“My mom always said, ‘Make sure you stand out, don’t be mediocre. You have to be above the rest,’ ” Steven told Tiki on TODAY. “And that’s what keeps me going.”
Now known as the “first family of taekwondo,” those words have certainly made a difference for the Lopezes.
Steven, 29, his brother Mark, 26, and sister Diana, 24, are contenders on the U.S. Olympic Taekwondo Team. Steven will battle it out in men’s welterweight and Diana and Mark in women’s and men’s featherweight, all scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Beijing.
The three won gold in 2005 at the World Taekwondo Championships in Madrid, Spain, making them the first three siblings in any sport to win world championship titles at the same event. Now, they are the first trio of siblings to compete in the Olympics since 1904.
Only one member of the Olympic team is not officially a Lopez — 17-year-old Charlotte Craig. But, according to Diana, she might as well be one of them.
“I take her in as my little sister,” she said.
Craig lost in the quarterfinals to Venezuela's Dalia Contreras Rivero, so now the pressure on the Lopezes is even heavier.
The team is coached by the eldest Lopez sibling, Jean, who also runs the Elite Taekwondo Center in Houston, Texas.
“It’s a big sense of accomplishment when Mark and Diana joined their older brother Steven on the Olympic team,” he said. “It was so exciting … you know, hard work paying off.”
Jean adds that of all the siblings, Steven is the most challenging to to coach.
“It's coaching the Michael Jordan of our sport,” he said.
Leaders of the pack
Years of training and family support have been paying off for more than a decade. In 1994, Jean was named U.S. Taekwondo’s Male Athlete of the Year, and he medaled in more than 30 national and international competitions throughout the 1990s.
He retired from the sport in 1998, and began coaching.
Two years later, taekwondo made its official debut at the Sydney Olympics, and Steven became the first to win a gold medal in the sport. In 2004, at just 30 years old, Jean was promoted to head coach of the Olympic team. Under his guidance, Steven went on to win his second gold medal as a welterweight in Athens.
In Beijing, Steven, who has been compared to Lance Armstrong for his impeccable record, will fight for his third medal, this time with his brother and sister in tow.
“I always told stories to Mark and Diana, how it is, how awesome the energy feels once you walk into that stadium,” Steven said. “And this time, we get to create our own memories and create new experiences with each other.”
For Jean, coaching all three of his siblings to qualify for the Olympics is bittersweet — emphasis on the sweet.
“Selfishly speaking, I wish I could still be competing and making the Olympic team,” Jean admitted. “But the satisfaction that I get, to be able to touch their lives and reach their potential — I get that satisfaction three times over.”
A family affair
Julio and Ondina, parents of the Lopez brood, immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua and lived in Upper Manhattan for a brief stint before moving the family to Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston, where they still reside.
Julio enrolled Jean in a local taekwondo class when he was 8 years old, and soon converted the family’s garage into a makeshift ring for sparring. It was only a matter of time before the younger Lopezes wanted tothrow down like their older brother. Steven and Mark were both introduced to the sport at the age of 5, and Diana started at 7.
Even back then, it seemed as if the family knew what the future held for them.
“Growing up, we would take family vacations to the Junior Olympics instead of Disneyland or Yosemite,” Mark said.
Steven credits his parents for his success, and says the medals he’s won, including two previous Olympic golds, are his father’s prized possessions.
“My dad keeps [my medals]. They're more his medals than they are mine,” laughed the three-time Olympian. “I have to ask my dad, ‘Dad, is it OK if I take the medals?’ because he guards them like it's his own little personal treasure.”
In addition to athleticism, the Lopezes also had plenty of opportunities to hone their competitive skills.
“We’re ultracompetitive. If you really want to see sibling rivalry, watch us playing volleyball together, or playing soccer,” Jean said, adding that any and every thing can spark up a duel. “Mark can bring up a fact. Steven immediately would debate it, even if he didn't know what the fact was or what he was talking about.”
And don’t even get them started on who is the better poker player.
“When we play poker, you see some ridiculous arguments,” Jean laughed.
Though they have disputes to settle both inside and outside the ring, the Lopezes say they have nothing but love and support for each other.
“My parents did a really good job of raising all of us,” Diana said. “We have a hierarchy in our family. Jean’s the oldest and we pretty much listen to what he has to say.”
Jean attributes much of the family’s success to their close bond.
“The family secret, I believe, is the love that we have for each other,” he said. “We share the same passion and the same drive. And it helps push each other and excel to limits that we think we can’t reach.”
For Steven, having his siblings on the team is a great opportunity. In fact, he says, he’s looking forward to sharing the spotlight.
“It's more of a motivation that all of our hard work, all of our sacrifices, everything that my mom and my dad have done for us has finally paid off,” he said. “And I've told them, ‘It's your time.’ ”