When winter hit Sugar Land, Texas, Ondina Lopez made sure her laundry schedule coincided with the times her kids wanted to kick one another. That way when Jean, Steven, Mark and Diana went to the unheated garage to practice taekwondo, Ondina could run the dryer in there and help keep them warm.
Taekwondo, which means "way of hand and foot" in Korean, became a bonding activity for the children of Ondina and her husband, Julio, Nicaraguan immigrants who moved to a New York City housing project in 1972 before setting outside Houston six years later. In that garage the kids trained on a concrete floor made slick from oil stains and left telltale holes in the wall where kicks went astray. It was the sort of house in which everyone greeted one another with hugs and kisses, and virtually every wall, box, table and cabinet was a target for youthful restlessness.
Last Thursday, Steven, 21, kicked his way into history by winning America's first Olympic taekwondo gold medal, in the 68-kilogram (149.9-pound) class. The unmistakable screams coming from the front row of the State Sports Centre in Sydney were from the Lopez clan: Diana, 16, a junior world champion in 1998 who was third at the U.S. trials in Colorado Springs; Mark, 18, also third at the 2000 trials a year after his third-place finish at the worlds made him the youngest medalist in the sport's history; and Jean, 27, a world silver medalist in '95 who coaches his three siblings at the Elite Taekwondo Center he opened in Houston three years ago. Julio, a structural engineer, was also at the State Sports Centre. Ondina, a housewife, stayed home citing frayed nerves. "It's dangerous to sit next to my mother when we fight," Steven says. "Anyone sitting next to her gets bruises all over."
At 6'2", Steven towers over most foes. He's so nimble, though, that he can prance toward his opponents on his right leg while flicking out the left. He trailed Sin Joon Sik of South Korea 1-0 in the gold medal bout but rallied for victory, getting the decisive point with his only back kick of the night. After time had expired, Jean and Diana hopped barricades and had to be restrained by arena security. "But it's my brother," Jean shouted. "Wouldn't you do the same thing?"
Two large officers were set to evict Jean but noticed the family-member accreditation badge around his neck and let him watch the medal ceremony as they stood nearby. As a guard forced Diana back into the stands, she pleaded her case by telling him, "but I'm the little sister. I'm supposed to be like this."
Two hours later Steven phoned his mother, who had already received a dozen calls offering congratulations and requesting interviews. Steven's end of the conversation sounded like this: "Mama, I won the gold medal. I won it, Mama, for you, for all of us.... No, I was losing 1-0 to the Korean, and I caught him with a back kick."
After hanging up, Steven, a National Honor Society member three years ago at Kempner High, posed with his family for pictures and pondered which college to attend. (He'd been putting off his education to train.) Julio held the medal in his hands and told his kids he would build a crystal box for it. This one they'll be extra careful not to break.