Lopez Bears the Torch for Tae Kwon Do

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Steven Lopez, Olympic Tae Kwon Do champion, carries the Olympic Torch to Vancouver.

Steven Lopez, Olympic Tae Kwon Do champion, carries the Olympic Torch to Vancouver.

For the Spring 2010 Clawmarks, I had the opportunity to interview Steven Lopez. Here is a complete, unabridged version of my interview.

Steven Lopez became the first fighter to win five world championship titles when he captured the men’s welterweight gold medal at the 2009 WTF World Taekwondo Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Lopez, 30, won his first world championship gold medal in 2001 and has been undefeated at the biennial event ever since, winning titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007. He has also won two Olympic gold medals (2000 & 2004) and one Olympic bronze medal (2008) in the last decade, but the world championships are often regarded as being the tougher event due to the depth of the field.

For the 2010 Winter Olympics, Steven has the honor of being a torchbearer. He works tirelessly to help others and to promote Tae Kwon Do. I had the honor to interview him for the Spring 2010 issue of Clawmarks. Not only is he a great athlete, but a truly martial person.

JO: Lets start off with getting some info on you being a torch bearer. That’s pretty cool.

Yeah it’s awesome. It’s something that I’m pretty proud of. I just always remember at the beginning of the Olympics seeing whichever athlete or person of some influence holding onto the torch. It’s just a mark of the beginning of the Olympics and I just always remember that being a great memory for me and it’s a huge honor as well.

JO: You have been doing some community work. Would you tell us about that as well?

SL: Well, I think I always made it a goal of mine, as a kid, if I ever reached a platform where I could reach people and be a positive influence on their lives and inspire them, whether it be something I said or something I did. I’ve had the opportunity to win 2 gold medals and win a bronze and I’ve had the opportunity to go to many businesses and universities/schools to speak on leadership. It brings me great gratification and sense of fulfillment to do that.

Just to give you a little background, my family made history by being the first family of four to make the Olympics team. It was the first time in history; my brother is an Olympic coach and my younger brother and sister made the Olympic team – as team mates of mine at the past year’s Olympics in Beijing. One of the programs that my family and I have been kind of a spokesperson for is Heroes for Children, which is an organization that provides social and financial support for the families of children with cancer in Texas. I go to a lot of the cancer hospitals. Even if all I’m doing is, just for a moment, breaking up the monotony of their day – anything that I can do to help them fight their cancer helps.

JO: How do you feel you portray a modern martial artist?

SL: Do you know what is great about being a martial artist? Martial arts in our country and around the world has grown and it is something intriguing to people. It is not merely the physical aspect of it either. It’s not just defending yourself, or losing weight, or getting stronger and feeling better about yourself, but it’s also the mental and the spiritual aspect of the martial arts that is intriguing to so many and that’s what attracts so many. It’s the mystique of it all. You can’t see any action movie without some kind of martial arts. I’m proud to be a martial artists. Tae kwon do is one of the few martial arts that’s an Olympic sports. Having that avenue, I feel great responsibility of bringing awareness to martial arts as a whole. What I try to do, when I inspire, when I talk to kids, is that whatever you may do, whatever sport or whatever you choose to do, you have to give 100% of yourself. If you give 100% of your effort, you never lose. Yes, the gold medal is a prized possession of mine. It’s wonderful, but at the end of the day—it’s just a medal. But what I gain from that is the journey, is the lessons, the sacrifices, and the discipline. It’s the journey that was taken to getting to that point.

And in this day and age especially, martial arts teaches you about perseverance, self control, indomitable spirit—and those are things that anyone can apply to their lives and be a champion in life.

JO: You talk about perseverance and indomitable spirit; what do you do to train? Are there specific techniques, equipment to help you?

SL: We practice kicking techniques. It’s pretty dynamic. It’s a full contact sport—knockouts are allowed. You get 1 pt for the body, 2 pts for headshots, and any spinning techniques you get 2 pts as well. It’s 3 rounds, 2 minutes each. We have all of our equipment. We have arm pads, shin pads, helmet, and chest protector.

This year, at the World’s [2009 WTF World Taekwondo Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark], was the first time they implemented the electronic chest protector—

JO: And instant replay. How do you feel about that?

I think it’s great. In every sport there is human error and, unfortunately, some politics involved—depending on which person is competing or what country. I think with instant replay and the electronic chest protector, it can help get rid of the subjectivity. It becomes a lot more objective. And so, at the end of the day if you are a champion, you find a way—no matter what the rules are, you’ll find a way to win.

JO: Do you ever practice forms?

SL: Yes, I always loved doing forms as a kid. Unfortunately, forms are not one of the competitions that are displayed at the Olympics games, just sparring.  But we practice them at our schools. We have 2 schools, Lopez Tae Kwon Do Academy, and we concentrate very much on the “traditional”, and I put that in quotes, side of Tae Kwon Do, which is poomse or forms.

JO: And you have been studying Tae Kwon Do since childhood? Did you study any other martial arts?

SL: I started Tae Kwon Do when I was 5, in ’83. At that time, we just happened to join—on the outside, on the sign it said Karate, but it was actually a Korean instructor teaching Tae Kwon Do. But no one really knew about Tae Kwon Do in the early 80’s. And yes, I have stayed with Tae Kwon Do throughout my career.

JO: And I read somewhere that you started learning Tae Kwon Do because  your older brother was interested in it…

SL: That is absolutely right. My older brother, he’s 5 yrs older than me, is a great brother and someone that I look up to. Whatever he did, I wanted to do it. He combed his hair a certain way—that’s the way I combed it. When he started Tae Kwon Do, I wanted to join in with him. It was something that I didn’t know was going to grow. I thought it was going to just be a hobby. From the very beginning I was infatuated with it. It was something, when we were kids – we got to yell, do cartwheels, rolls, kicks, and punch. We were encouraged to do so. Where in school, you need to be quiet and if you talk too much; you get in trouble. It was an outlet for me. So it was almost like a second education for me as well. Because it was martial arts, you learn discipline and self-discipline and respect and all these great values that your family teaches you. My parents saw that and encouraged it as well. At the same time, I would go to competitions and I would win medals and trophies and so that also encouraged me to do it. And here I am,  many years later still doing the sport that I fell in love with as a boy

JO: What are your Tae Kwon Do goals in the future? Are you thinking another Olympics…World Competition?

SL: Most definitely. If I weren’t planning on 2012, I would have most likely retired after these past Olympics in Beijing. I still feel like I’m getting better and I’m still motivated and healthy. I think that’s the most important If you still feel motivated and healthy, if you are not mentally drained, I’m going to keep doing it until I can’t any longer. You know I went to the last World’s in October and I won there. So now the plan is to go on to 2012. 2010, we have the Pan Am Championships, which will be in Ecuador. In 2011, we have World Championships again; they will be held in Korea. And God willing, I’ll go onto 2012 in London. The great thing is my brother is the national team coach, the US Olympic coach, and I have my brother and sister along side of me. We all have a common goal. And it makes it a lot easier to train because we kind of lean on each other and motivate each other. When we do compete, no matter which country it is, it almost always feels like I have home court advantage because I always have my family along side me.

JO: That’s an awesome way to look at it. What do you find indispensable in your Tae Kwon Do training? Is there a routine or habits you always follow before you compete?

SL: Some would say meditate. I would say pray. I always try to give myself a moment before each day.  You know, how you start the day, how you wake up almost tells you how your day will end, how it will go; so, I always give myself a moment to pray or center myself. I think “today will be a great day” and I hope I may have the best day I can have. When I’m at these competitions, I do much the same thing. I think that everyone at the World Championships or at the Olympics is capable. They are fast; they are all strong and ready condition-wise. I think that what makes the biggest difference is mentally – where they are at or spiritually. So I try to center myself and talk to myself a little bit. That’s what I always do, no matter what, no matter what country I’m in I always center myself.

JO: You mention that your family has 2 Tae Kwon Do Schools? Are they both in Texas?

SL: Yes, one’s in Sugarland. That’s the city I actually live in and the other one is actually getting built as we speak is in Houston. We’re very excited about the new location that we’re opening up. Yes, it’s going to be our family business.  We have some instructors that are also National Team members who will be our instructors

JO: Do you ever teach?

SL: Yes, I do. Every once in awhile, not an everyday thing but it’s almost like giving back—having the kids see me, know that I’m not too far off. It may be once a week that I choose a specific class. It might be a kid’s class or 10-12 or the adult class. I try to do at least one class a week.

JO: Did you know that you ranked on the Top 5 list of “Hotties” by Elle Magazine during the Olympics in Beijing?

SL: No I didn’t know that. Really? Hey, now I have something to feel good about…

JO: And the USOC just named you Athlete of the Month…

SL: Now that I did know. You know, you are going to have to forward me the info on the Elle Magazine thing. That’s really funny

JO: What would you say to someone who wants to get into Tae Kwon Do or competition?

SL: You know, I think its simple. A lot of people have asked me what is the secret or what do you have to do to be successful in Tae Kwon do. The number one thing, you have to believe in yourself. You really have to be goal oriented, set goals for yourself, what is it that you really want to do. Do you want to lose a couple a pounds, to defend yourself, to gain self confidence? Start off small and gradually you make those goals a little bigger. You just have to have fun, enjoy life. I believe that whatever you do. You tend to be better at it. Just have fun, you lose weight, you become flexible, it’s a fun sport, very dynamic and I encourage everyone to try it.

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