RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The first time Steven Lopez made the U.S. Olympic taekwondo team, he was just 15 years old. More than two decades later, the Texas-based fighter recently qualified again and will likely be the oldest athlete competing in taekwondo at the Rio de Janeiro games.
At 37, Lopez is the most acclaimed fighter in the sport and dominated the Korean martial art for more than a decade, winning a record five world championship titles.
Lopez won Olympic gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and took home a bronze in 2008. But at the London 2012 games, he was knocked out in the first round after breaking a leg shortly before the Olympics.
Ahead of Rio, Lopez said his misfortune in London adds a bit of extra motivation.
"I can accept defeat if the guy is just better than me that day," he told the Associated Press. "But to not be able to go out there and perform at my best (in 2012) was something that was very hard for me to stomach and one of the reasons why I went on to try to make the Olympic team in 2016."
Still, a lot has changed since Lopez started taekwondo, a martial art characterized by its aerial kicks and spinning techniques. When Lopez began competing, kicks were scored by four corner judges and had to be forceful enough to elicit "trembling shock" from the opponent.
After controversy plagued the Beijing 2008 games, taekwondo's ruling body switched to an electronic system where players score when the sensors in their foot protectors strike their opponents' body armor with the right amount of impact; head kicks require only that the foot touch the opponent's head guard or face to register three or four points.
In recent years, many fighters have adapted to the temperamental system by modifying taekwondo kicks to maximize their chances, using unorthodox techniques that are unrecognizable to traditional taekwondo practitioners — including Lopez.
"It seems strange that with the rules now, if you land a kick, however it looks, it can score points even though it is not at all taekwondo," Lopez said, adding that he is reluctant to use some of the altered kicks being tried by many other fighters.
World Taekwondo Federation president Chungwon Choue said officials are trying to strike a balance between preserving the martial art's origins and the continued evolution of the sport. He noted Lopez would soon become the first athlete to make five straight Olympic appearances and that while most competitors were in their 20s, it would be unwise to discount Lopez.
"Anything can happen in taekwondo," Choue said.
With just weeks to go before Lopez arrives in Rio, he says he is as excited as he was for his very first games.
"There will be a time that no matter how much I want it, I won't be capable of doing it," Lopez said. "So for right now, I am just trying to enjoy every single part of this."