HOUSTON — With his back to the ground, Steven Lopez’s shoulder had popped out of its socket once again.
In the middle of the bronze medal match of the 2015 Pan American Games, trainers held the three-time Olympic medalist’s arm steady, pushing the dislocated arm back into place. Lopez’s face grimaced as the adjustments continued, then suddenly he was back on his feet, fighting again.
When the match ended, Lopez walked away with the bronze medal.
A year later, Lopez would win gold at the 2016 Pan American games, making him one of the most decorated athletes in taekwondo, a sport that’s a combination of accuracy, power and control with the grace and movement of ancient martial arts.
Now, he is in Rio de Janeiro for his fifth Olympic Games, with hopes of taking home another gold medal.
Encouraged by his family, Lopez took to taekwondo at a young age. His parents thought the martial arts would be good for character development. Soon the entire family was deeply invested in the sport. He thought the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where he won Olympic gold, would be his first and last games, but his entire family eventually joined him.
“I was so inspired by winning, that I couldn’t step away and won again in 2004,” Lopez said, who attends St. Theresa Catholic Church in Sugar Land, Texas. His brother Mark and sister Diana would ask him about the Olympic experience, about the Olympic Village, the athletes, the ceremonies.
“It’s one thing to tell them about it, but in 2008 … when they made the Olympic team, that was a huge motivation for me,” he told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
His older brother Jean attended the games as the siblings’ coach. Lopez said his mother had yet to attend any of the games, but since the entire family was participating, in the family kitchen he convinced their mom to go to Beijing.
“If all your children make the 2008 Olympic team, you better go,” he told her. “OK, OK,” she said.
She must have doubted it would happen. Then a “miracle and a blessing” occurred: All four were going to Beijing, with Steven, Mark and Diana competing and Jean coaching them.
To Rio, Lopez took the deep experience of performing on the highest level. In this physically demanding sport, fighters score points by landing kicks and punches on the torso and head of their opponent — the fighter with the most points wins the bout.
“This might be my last one,” said Lopez, 37, who took Olympic gold in 2000 and 2004 and bronze in 2008. At the 2012 games in London, he was knocked out in the first round after breaking a leg.
“Going to Rio de Janeiro is a huge feat, it’s a combative sport and for me honestly … I went through a lot of injuries last year — and just my body being able to recuperate and be ready for this physical year, I’m happy and proud of that,” he explained.
During one of his competitions, his shoulder dislocated nine or 10 times. Through training, surgery and physical therapy, his shoulder was ready for Rio but getting there was tough, he said.
“All I ask and pray for is that I’m able to perform at my best. It’s one step closer to my ultimate goal and dream, which is to be on that first-place podium and win another gold medal for the United States.”
That dream continues to be fueled by the work of his parents who came to New York City via Nicaragua.
“My parents are heroes to me,” he said. “Not knowing how to speak English … but [they came] because they had hope for the American dream for finding opportunities for their future family.”
He said for a long time, he daydreamed over and over about winning his first Olympic medal in 2000. “I wrote in my journal: Steven Lopez, 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist.”
Once he was on that podium, Lopez said, a memory of a childhood conversation with his mom came to mind.
“When I was a little boy, I asked my mom, ‘Why do some guys and girls cry when they win Olympic medals?’ She told me it was because they’re really happy. This always confused me back then, because I always thought when you’re happy you don’t cry, you laugh or smile. When I stepped down and went backstage, it hit me. I was just laughing, crying, an overwhelming emotion and joy.
He added: “All these years of sacrifice not just on my part, but with my teammates, my parents and all those behind the scenes who helped me in some way achieve that goal — I could have died at that moment and been happy.”
Lopez said his faith has always been a very important part of his life.
It’s a “very key component to what I build my success on and I always prayed that if I ever found a platform that I can give back, I would,” he said. “Being a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a bronze medalist and my family having the success it’s had in this sport, it transcended the sport.”
He also said 1 Corinthians 13 inspires him to know what love is, how “‘it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ is very important to me. It defines what love is for me.”
Ramos is a staff writer and designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.