Diana Lopez: preparing for a focused fight

LONDON, England — Jean Lopez, the 38-year-old coach of the USA Olympic Taekwondo team, sits on an exercise ball in the middle of the blue and red acrobatics room on a Sunday morning at the University of East London SportsDock training center. He lightly bounces up and down on the ball while playing with an iPod, changing the song about halfway through every time.

Diana Lopez, Jean’s 28-year-old sister, is one of the last to step onto the mat. She zips up a blue Team USA track jacket, and begins her warm up.

Photo by Kerry Crump
Diana Lopez, left, spars with Charlotte Craig at the University of East London, Dockhands on Sunday.

After a few minutes of sparring and stretching with training partner Charlotte Craig, Diana begins a workout specifically designed to improve her taper.

“We took her though a medium workout in the beginning, just to get her metabolism going and get a good sweat,” Jean said. “At the end we worked a bit of explosiveness so that we feel like she’s firing on all cylinders.”

Every move has a purpose, even the sweat dripping down the side of her face. Diana has been cutting weight for her 2nd Olympic appearance on Aug. 9 for the past two months.

“It’s the least fun of our sport, having to watch what you eat,” Craig said. “But it’s not that hard when you’ve been doing it your whole life.”

As the workout intensifies, Jean spits a set of instructions to Diana, who responds with a disciplined, “Yes Sir.” The focus in Diana’s eyes is matched by her stone-faced expression.

She jabs and kicks with power while also holding a graceful poise. Jean relates this to her background in other sports.

“She loves volleyball. She did it when she was very young, and I definitely think it helps her,” said Jean, who previously pushed Diana toward volleyball. “She had scholarships and talks about where to go for colleges, but we couldn’t shake her. She wanted to be like her brothers.”

Photo by Kerry Crump
Lopez practices kicks with one of her various training partners.

The short practice comes to an end, and Diana sits down on the mat. She begins rubbing at her ankle, which is covered in layers of athletic tape. A strip of hot pink tape runs from her alkalis tendon up her calf.

She lays down on the mat in a deep meditation for a few minutes until a trainer comes and begins to stretch her legs. Diana and the trainer talk and joke around, a smile and occasional laugh breaking through the serious wall that had been up during her practice.

This is interrupted by the occasional wince of pain from the Olympian.

“Most of the days now we’re focused on her resting and recovering, going to sports med, and putting ice on those bumps and bruises,” said Jean.

After a long stretch, Diana gets the OK to hit the showers. Her expression has gone from serious to exhausted as she searches through her bags and under chairs for the shampoo bottles that are missing. After a minute of fumbling she finds the bottles and walks to the locker room, throwing a wave at Charlotte and other members of the coaching staff.

When she walks into a conference with the Associated Press after she has showered and changed, her eyes look less tired and her expression more approachable. Jean relates the mature expressions to her previous Olympic experience.

“I believe that what puts her in a better position now than in Beijing is that she has that Olympic fever background behind it,” he said. “She knows when to be excited about things and when to downplay things and focus on what to do.”

Diana is sent to an ice plunge right after meeting with The AP and spends the rest of her day resting. While training for the Olympic Taekwondo practice was her priority in the morning, members of her coaching staff agree that the rest of her day should be focused on herself.

“You don’t want them watching or focusing too much on one fighter, or getting in their heads,” George Weissfisch, a scout on Team USA, said. “You’re going to wear yourself out if you’re constantly thinking about it 24 hours a day.”

A dancer turned into an Olympian

Photo By Jacob Corrigan
Taekwondo welter wight Olympian Paige McPherson

From ballet slippers to black belt, Olympian Paige McPherson has sacrificed a lot in her life to be a member of the 2012 Taekwondo Olympic Team.

McPherson is a 21 year old who moved from Sturgis, South Dakota to Miami Florida to train with Juan Moreno for the team Peak Performance Miami. 

This is the first Olympic games that she has competed in. She officially qualified for the team in March. Since then her coach has noticed new attributes to McPherson and her mentality within the sport.

“What has really developed within the last year is her mental make up,” said Moreno. “She is a young athlete who has been thrown into an Olympic process and Olympic platform so its tough for a young lady moving from South Dakota, then Miami and now is here in London.”

Before making her way into taekwondo, McPherson was a skilled all-around dancer. She didn’t become interested in the sport at all until she saw her older brother Evan compete.

“When I was younger I always wanted to be like my older brother so I had to start,” said McPherson.

This sport soon became a family event as the years went on and the family grew closer than ever before.

“We were a little bit wild because when we fought as siblings we would be kicking,” said McPherson. “It was all fun and games but just being able to do something together as a family was one of the best moments for me.”

Paige McPherson is competing in the welterweight division which is commonly known as the middleweight class. Before the Olympics she qualified as a member on the US National team and won outstanding female athlete in 2009 prior to the national finals.

“There came a time when I had to choose and I decided, ‘Let’s take something that’s greater than myself. I can fight for something bigger than myself,’” said McPherson.

When it comes to the skill of the sport taekwondo, McPherson’s coach knows what her strengths are.

“Her flexibility is awesome,” said Moreno. “For a female her explosion is really incredible. It is very manlike, and it is just wicked. It gets her from point A to Z so fast.”

Dancing gave McPherson an edge to coming into the sport, yet when Moreno described what the key is he said that if you are unable to get a fast start in the beginning, then you are done for the day.

Moreno said he teaches his athletes as this to be a key point in the way that they fight. Because McPherson is new to the Olympic tournament style he said he has that strategy “drilled in their minds.”

“If I could dream of a perfect match for [Paige] I would like her to get off to a fast start by establishing her front leg and then kick somebody in the face,” said Moreno.

Even McPherson’s teammates know the strength and ability she has after just knowing her a year.

“She has great chance at these games because she is competing with the best,” said Terence Jenning’s, a 86kg weight class member on the USA team. “I think it goes back to the fact that she has so many great supporters at home and she has a very high chance at success here.”

Aside from McPherson’s coach and teammates who know what they want to see out of her tournament play, she has a goal all in her own mind as well.

“One of my biggest goals is to glorify my Lord,” said McPherson. “I am definitely going for the gold at this type of tournament but I know that God is in control and whatever happens, happens but for right now I’m just focusing on doing the very best that I can for that day.

Photo By Jacob Corrigan
Paige McPherson with coach Juan Moreno during practice Friday

Paige McPherson will begin her competition Aug. 9 at the ExCel center.

Two brothers and a sister to compete for Team USA Taekwondo

As the Olympics began, athletes, teams and fans of Team USA united as one family. For the USA Taekwondo team, however, their family goes much deeper. Blood deep.

USA competitors Steven Lopez, Diana Lopez, Coach Jean Lopez, and alternate Mark Lopez share more than just a last name. They are a Taekwondo family. They have all reached the highest level of athletic competition, the Olympics.

“It’s been a blessing to experience this journey with your family at such a high level,” said Jean Lopez, now coaching his third Olympics. “In today’s world, it’s very difficult for a family to sit down to have dinner and share quality time, but for us, to find a sport like Taekwondo that we’re all passionate about has kept us close.”

Photo by Jacob Corrigan
Coach Jean Lopez speaking outside of a Team USA practice about the upcoming events.

With Jean as their coach, the history-making family celebrated in Beijing in 2008 as Steven and Diana won bronze and Mark brought home a silver medal.

“This sport has brought us together, closer than most family members and siblings,” said Jean. “It’s a very intimate moment that you share together when you’re competing at this level.”

Steven won gold medals during the 2000 and 2004 summer games and hopes to reclaim that spot following his Beijing bronze.

“When it gets to this stage of the games, the mental preparation and the emotional preparation comes into play a lot more,” one of Steven’s training partners during the Olympics, Nir Moriah said.

Emotion can be a mind game while training and competing at this level, but Jean said he thinks family helps him all deal with it.

“It’s a very lonely feeling sometimes and when you know other people have experienced it, in this case your siblings, then you can relate to each other about what you’re going through,” he said. “We can help each other and empathize.”

Beyond the emotional support, the Lopez family members are each other’s greatest competitors.

“In our family, it’s still competitive, not about the accomplishments, but we’re just trying to live in the moment,” said Coach Jean. “We are always competing whether it’s playing basketball, soccer, poker or any other sports. We always want to win.”

He admits, however, that the constant desire to see their family succeed can actually be hard on them.

“For me as a coach, it is very difficult to just be their brother,” he said. “I feel like I always need to be the coach over the brother. I tend to always have their interests as an athlete first.”

Despite this, Jean believes this dedication has paid off for the team.

“I feel like everyone is ready now. Steven, Diana, TJ and Paige look very good,” he said.

With the Lopez family at the center of USA Taekwondo, people may overlook the other two competitors, Terrence Jennings, 25, who beat out Mark Lopez for a spot, and Paige McPherson, 21, a former dancer and first time Olympian. Also, Team USA has brought along several training partners for the athletes including Charlotte Craig, who competed in Beijing, and Nir Moriah.

Photo by Jacob Corrigan
Nir Moriah talks with media about training with Steven and the team atmosphere on and off the mats.

“In the gym, we’re all teammates, brothers and sisters. We see each other everyday,” Craig said. “Even outside of the gym, it’s hard to separate us.”

Craig was the fourth member to the 2008 Taekwondo Lopez team. Steven, Diana and Mark all secured the other three spots on Team USA in Beijing.

“We always joked that I was part of the family. The adopted Lopez,” said Craig. “I really do feel like their youngest sister. They took me under their wing and were always there for me.”

Even though Craig finds herself as only a training partner for this summer’s games, she said she still feels a part of the team. This extended family of Team USA serves two purposes said Moriah, Steven’s training partner.

“Inside the gym, it’s all business. This pressure requires a certain degree of intensity with a ‘no room for error’ kind of mentality,” Moriah said. “Once workouts are over, it’s about hanging out and being the way we normally are.”

Thanks to the hours of training and preparation over the last four years, this group is already familiar with one another.

“There is a group from Miami that trains together then also a group from Houston,” Moriah said. “Everyone has known each other for a long time so it’s almost like we are family. Some actually are.”

Photo by Jacob Corrigan
Charlotte Craig practices Taekwondo against other training partners.

On Aug. 9 and 10, this Taekwondo family, Lopez or not, will support each other as they try to fight for multiple gold medals. Team USA Taekwondo and the Lopez family continue to remind Americans of the Olympic spirit.

“What I notice is that there is a degree of comfort and a degree of stability in a sense that no matter where they are in the world, a family has that home court advantage and that support,” Moriah said.