A family that kicks together, sticks together

To the Lopezes of Texas, it's obvious: The two slots on the US Olympic Taekwondo team can't accommodate all their talent.

Julio Lopez wasn't thinking about the Olympics 21 years ago. He was thinking about his favorite movie actors when he saw the sign in the window of a neighborhood shop. The sign said "Karate."

Julio loved the high-flying kicks and swift chops in martial-arts movies. He admired the "good guys" in the films, like actors Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. They played incredible athletes with strong codes of honor.

Julio couldn't imagine learning to do those kicks and chops himself. He and his wife, Ondina, had come to the United States from Nicaragua and settled in Texas. "We started from zero," Julio says. But he hoped his children would have many opportunities - like the chance to learn a wonderful new sport.

Soon Julio and Ondina's 8-year-old son, Jean, was studying at the local karate school. Jean was later joined by younger siblings Steven, Mark, and Diana.

Eventually, Julio discovered the "karate" school didn't teach karate. The Korean instructor was an expert in tae kwon do, a Korean martial art. Nobody had ever heard of tae kwon do, but everybody had heard of karate. So to attract students the instructor had put up a "karate" sign.

Things turned out well for the Lopez family. Karate is not an Olympic sport. Tae kwon do is.

Fri., June 4, 6 p.m.: Eve of the trials

The Lopez family has come to San Jose, Calif., from their home in Sugar Land, Texas. Steven and Diana Lopez are about to compete for a spot on the United States Olympic tae kwon do team.

Steven, 25, is to fight as a tae kwon do welterweight (176 pounds or less), while Diana, 20, would compete as a featherweight (125 pounds or less). This reporter spoke to them just before - and just after - the competition.

"I fought seven women to get here," says Diana of her victory at a recent round-robin tournament in Colorado. "Tomorrow, I have to win twice to make the team."

The United States will send just two tae kwon do athletes - a man and a woman - to next month's Olympics in Athens, Greece. At the next day's Olympic Trials, the top-ranked man or woman will need just one victory to earn a spot on the team. The second-ranked athlete will have to win twice. Diana Lopez is the underdog in her fight against Nia Abdallah of Houston.

Diana's older brother Steven, however, is top-ranked. He is the man to beat here - and in Athens. He won a gold medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney, as well as world championships in 2001 and 2003.

All four Lopez siblings had gathered to talk about tae kwon do. Mark, 22, is the most relaxed. He had just missed qualifying to compete here. At a qualifying match, he lost in the final seconds to Tony Graf of Miami. Had Mark won, his next opponent - for the Olympic slot - would have been ... his older brother, Steven.

Mark says he won't be nervous watching Steven and Diana. "I really believe in them," he says.

But Diana has a hard time watching Mark and Steven's matches. "You can tell I am their sister by watching me in the stands," she says. "My mom and I have no nails, we bite them so much."

Their mother, Ondina, has an even harder time. "Even if I give her a tape and tell her beforehand I won," Steven says, "she is all nervous and jumpy watching it." He imitates his mother cringing and hiding her eyes - to his siblings' delight.

Tae kwon do means "the way of the foot and fist." Modern tae kwon do is based on ancient Korean techniques. Competitive tae kwon do stresses kicking, though punches are also taught. Fighters wearing helmets and body padding score points if they land a strong kick with their foot (not their shin) to an opponent's head or body.

Steven and Mark started tae kwon do when they were 5. Diana started at age 7. "I thought it was great," Steven says. "What kid doesn't like to kick and punch like the Power Rangers?"

For Diana, tae kwon do was a way to be close to her brothers. "I always looked up to them," she said. "Not many families hang out all day together. I cherish it."

All the Lopezes agree that tae kwon do has brought them closer together. "We have a common goal," Steven says, "a common dream to make it to the Olympics."

Steven, Mark, and Diana live at home with their parents. Their coach is Jean Lopez, who runs a tae kwon do gym in Houston. Other top-ranked tae kwon do athletes train at his gym, too. Even father Julio has started taking lessons. "He's a little quieter now about giving us advice," Jean says, smiling.

The Lopez children follow a tough training schedule. A typical day for Diana goes like this: "Work out, then breakfast. Relax for a while, then train for two hours. Then go home and eat, then teach the 5-and-under class at the gym. Then train again."

Steven runs eight or nine miles a day, though he cuts back just before a major competition. He also plays basketball and soccer to "keep it fun."

Diana relaxes by "reading, eating, and doing typical girl stuff like shopping." She also likes to play Xbox video games. "I'm the best at Xbox," she claims, "and my brothers hate losing to me." She grins.

Nobody can do high-level tae kwon do forever. Mark received a scholarship to St. Thomas University in Houston, where he majors in finance. Diana plans to get a degree in education and teach kindergarten. Steven has promised his mother that after this Olympics he will go to college and get a degree in finance.

Sat., June 5: Trials begin

The Olympic Trials for judo and tae kwon do are at San Jose State University's Event Center. There is one large mat for judo, another for tae kwon do.

In tae kwon do, a strong kick to the head or body scores one point. A hard kick that stuns or staggers is worth two points, and the referee begins an eight-count. If the competitor who was kicked cannot continue, his opponent wins by a knockout. Three judges circle the mat and award points. Two must concur on a scoring blow for it to be recorded. A judge in the ring issues warnings for violations like holding.

Diana's match is first. Jean, her brother and coach, kneels at the edge of the mat, talking to Diana as she stretches. He gives her a kiss before she goes out to battle for an Olympic berth.

Nia Abdallah has her own cheering section. They all wear bright yellow T-shirts with "NIA USA" on the back. The Lopez section isn't as well coordinated, but they are matchless in volume: "Let's go, Diana! Let's go!"

Nia quickly scores a point against Diana. Neither scores in the second round. In the third round, Diana scores two points and leads 2-1. But Nia quickly strikes back to tie the match, at 2-2.

The Abdallah-Lopez match now goes into "sudden death" overtime. The first to score will win. If Diana wins, she'll have to beat Nia again. If Diana loses, it's all over for her.

Diana and Abdallah face each other, bouncing and feinting. Suddenly, Nia spots an opening and scores with a swift kick to Diana's body. The match is over. Diana's Olympic dreams will have to wait.

The Lopez section groans as the Abdallah section celebrates. Diana walks over to Jean, who gives her a hug. Who better than a brother to soften a body blow?

Minutes later, the Lopez section rallies in support of Steven. If he wins this match, he will go to the Olympics again.

Steven's challenger, Tony Graf, scores the first point. But Steven remains relaxed and in control. He scores against Graf and smiles. Graf, who has never beaten Steven in half a dozen contests, smiles back.

After being repeatedly warned for holding, Graf sees his only point deducted as a penalty. Steven scores four points. He is making this difficult sport look easy. Steven's victory earns him a trip to the Olympics!

"I feel God has blessed me," Steven says after the match, "and if I go out there and do the work and the training and give 100 percent, it will be enough for me to bring back the gold medal."

Diana is clearly disappointed, but she doesn't whine or make excuses. "I did what I could and fell short," she says. "I want to try again. I can go to school like Mark, and keep doing tae kwon do. This is my life."

The rest of the family - Julio, Ondina, Jean, and Mark - cope with the bitter and the sweet results. There just aren't enough Olympic berths for all the talented Lopez athletes.

"I am proud of my children," father Julio says, "but not because of their sport. I am proud of them because they are good people."

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