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2005 Sportsman of the Year

My Sportsman Choice: Lopez Family

Posted: Thursday December 1, 2005 12:35PM; Updated: Thursday December 1, 2005 12:35PM
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By Brian Cazeneuve

The most overworked garage in Sugar Land, Texas, looks like a disaster site. The place is filled with typical oil stains and soot, but how did so many holes get in one wall? Does no one know how to drive in the Lopez household? "It looks like a home for blind drivers," Jean Lopez recalled recently.

Last April, in Madrid, the Lopez family -- Steven, 27, Mark, 23, and Diana, 21 -- pulled off an unprecedented athletic feat. Each won gold medals at the World Taekwondo Championships while the eldest of the four siblings, Jean, himself a former world medalist, was the head coach. It was the third world title for Steven, who won gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and is making a case for himself as the greatest fighter of his era. Mark and Diana won their first world crowns.

The NHL once sported six Sutter brothers, who, in another life, might have made pretty good martial artists themselves. The major league catchers' union has a monopoly on Molinas. And what's a tennis tournament these days without Williams and Williams with commentary from McEnroe and McEnroe? Still, nobody at the USOC -- or anywhere else -- seems to know of three siblings reigning simultaneously at the top of their sporting empires.

This reign had modest beginnings. Ondina and Julio Lopez came over from Nicaragua 33 years ago and lived in a housing project in New York City before settling in the Houston area. They welcomed their children's errant kicks so long as the kids made it back up in one piece for mandatory family dinners.

At the table, Ondina and Julio not only preached the values of hard work and discipline, but also character, politeness and respect for elders. Perhaps by accident, many of those traits gave the children a leg up in their taekwondo careers. They were known as good listeners, tireless practitioners and always tight family members: When Steven celebrated his triumph in the 149-pound class at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Jean, who was a spectator at those Games, and Diana, both hopped over barricades to embrace their brother, only to be restrained by police. Little has held them back since then.

Jean was promoted to Olympic team coach in 2004, when Steven earned the only U.S. men's berth available, at welterweight (176 pounds). He did so by beating Tony Graf at the Olympic trials after Graf had beaten Mark Lopez in the semifinals, thereby preventing a sibling final for a place on the Olympic team, a matchup neither brother especially wanted. Steven has gone from being a member of the National Honor Society to one of People magazine's 50 Hottest Bachelors.

Diana won two world titles as a junior and lost in the finals of the Olympic trials last summer. In Madrid, she won five featherweight bouts, outscoring foes 28-9. As Diana accepted her gold medal on the victory stand, Mark, 23, the stylish showman of the family, tried to psych himself for his fight without losing composure over his sister's victory.

He had long coveted his own world title, and most observers knew it was only a matter of time. In 1999, he had become the youngest world medalist in the sport's history when he won a bronze. In 2003, he upgraded to silver, losing on a controversial technicality despite having knocked out his Korean opponent as time expired. In Madrid, Mark outlasted Korea's Song Myong-seob, 7-6, to win his gold medal.

The Lopez's accomplishments alone would be enough to merit SI's Sportsmen (or Sports Family) of the Year, but then I think back to the aftermath of the finals in Sydney. An hour or so after Steven won the Olympics for the first time, he and his family walked with me to the SI offices in the main press center in Sydney to phone their mother, who is a notoriously nervous viewer and generally prefers to stay home. It was a simple enough gesture, but I cannot recall being thanked, nor called Sir, so often in my life -- even by Julio, the father.

For now, the Lopez family can dream of more Olympic glory and family meals in Beijing. If they repeat their Madrid performances, the public may try to picture what life was like inside the garage. I'll imagine the dinner table.

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