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Siblings Mark and Diana Lopez fight their way to history

DES MOINES, Iowa -- All that was at stake was a decadelong family dream and a century's worth of U.S. Olympic history. That's all.

For good measure, Diana Lopez pushed the expectations and kicked the drama into sudden-death overtime. She took the U.S. Olympic taekwondo trials to the limit Saturday night.

As she fought for the final spot on the U.S. team, it got so nerve-racking that her older brother, Steven, the nation's best taekwondo player, squirmed in his seat in the second row of the balcony of the dingy Veterans Memorial Auditorium. As he watched, his two hands ran nervously through his dark black hair.

"It's torturous what my siblings put me through," Steven, the 29-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion, said somewhat sarcastically after the match. "I can take any Olympic final, I can fight in a world championship and fall behind and win in sudden death, but when it comes to my siblings, it's out of my control. There's not much I can do."

But on Saturday, Mark and Diana did it all, clinching in their weight classes to join Steven to do what no other American family has done since 1904. Three siblings will be on the same U.S. Olympic team come Aug. 8 in Beijing.

They all will join oldest brother, Jean, 36, the U.S. Olympic team coach.

"Right now, I'm the proudest brother in the world,'' Jean said. "More importantly, I know the best team was chosen."

Besides featherweights Diana (126 pounds for the women) and Mark (150 pounds), Charlotte Craig, 17, of Riverside, Calif., won the flyweight (108 pounds) spot, defeating Anees Hasnain, 16, of McKinney, Texas. Steven, who hasn't lost a match in eight years, earned his welterweight spot at an international competition last fall.

This tiny, somewhat esoteric, slice of Olympic history was played out in a certain amount of obscurity, in downtown Des Moines, before a cozy crowd of about 800 people in the rarely used, 53-year-old auditorium.

Despite the relative insignificance of taekwondo among U.S. sports fans, the Lopez family saga had created a certain amount of anticipation. Not since gymnast brothers Edward, Richard and William Tritschler competed for the U.S. at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics have three siblings been charmed with Olympic status in the same year.

The night began with Craig, a 5-foot-5 inch, 97-pound high school junior, defeating Hasnain, 4-2.

That done, Mark and chief rival Chris Martinez stepped onto the mats. It was a particularly eerie and even silent fight because neither had a coach in his corner. That's because Jean coaches Martinez, too. To be fair, Jean opted out of the match, preferring to stand 10 yards away near a table of USA Taekwondo executives and board members, his arms crossed, silently watching. It was up to the fighters alone.

Lopez and Martinez train together, so they know each other extremely well. It was a thinking man's match that Martinez tied with 57 seconds to go. But 50 seconds later, with the clock ticking toward over time, Mark, using his right foot, firmly kicked Martinez, scored a point and won the contest to clinch a spot on the team.

Mark looked toward the balcony and raised his right fist. Steven stood, as TV cameras surrounded him, and raised both hands as if signaling a successful field goal. Mark performed two nifty back flips. Jean walked toward the mat to hug Mark.

One down, one to go.

Twelve minutes later, Diana walked to the mat in a white rope and blue chest protector along with longtime rival Nia Abdallah, in white and red.

In 2004, Abdallah edged Lopez in overtime, keeping her from making the U.S. team for Athens. Abdallah went on to win a silver medal for the U.S. in Greece. Lopez won the 2005 world title. Lopez and Abdallah, now both 24, have a very combative history.

Among the crowd, about 30 or so waved red-and-white "Nia" placards. Meanwhile, a larger group began chanting, "Di-An-Ah! Di-An-Ah!''

Steven sat in the same seat of that dimly lit balcony, squirming. Jean, back at matside, kissed his sister as she took to the fight.

Lopez and Abdallah both bounced on the balls of their feet and turned their shoulders toward each other.

Then, very little happened.

"It was almost like a chess match," Steven said.

"Diana started out a little sluggish," Jean added.

Diana fell once but wasn't penalized by the judges. Abdallah seemed to be hurt by a marginally low kick by Lopez. The "Di-An-Ah!" chanting continued, but after two two-minute periods and another Lopez fall, the match was scoreless. It was as if neither fighter wanted to make a mistake.

The judges, as well.

"The judges were very afraid of pressing the buttons," Joseph Salim, Abdallah's coach, said afterward. "I think definitely Nia had more hits. And I think she controlled the fight more."

Jean disagreed. He thought Diana controlled the "rhythm" of the match. Taekwondo is, of course, a subjective sport.

Two more minutes. A few more attacks by each athlete. No points. Then, overtime. First point wins. Even in the mostly empty arena, you could feel the tension.

Eight quick seconds into the extra period, the Lopezes thought Diana scored with a kick, but the four judges didn't agree. A minute later, it appeared as if Abdallah scored, but no point was posted. A smattering of boos rained down. Then, with 29 seconds remaining, Diana slide-stepped toward Abdallah and, with her right foot, landed on Abdallah's left arm and, perhaps, a bit on the left side of Abdallah's torso.

Three judges instantly posted a point. The match was over, 1-0. Diana was an Olympian.

She ran to Jean. They embraced and stumbled to the mat, rolling. "Yes! Yes!" Jean yelled. He pointed to Steven, who was on his feet in the balcony with his arms raised in celebration, then reached for his cell phone.

Mark, who watched the match from the floor, said, "She closed the deal for us to make history."

Said Diana: "I know my brothers were watching me … it was four against one, everyone has my back … I've been waiting four years for this."

Said Steven the spectator: "I'm totally drained right now.''

This Lopez-Abdallah fight, like others, had a pinch of controversy and protest. The two are so evenly matched. And Abdallah's parents, Thomas and Rhonda Duhart, have a tendency to criticize the Lopezes' hold on the sport and USA Taekwondo's leadership for, they believe, favoring the Lopezes.

"They want the siblings all there," Rhonda Duhart said of USA Taekwondo's leaders. "I don't want this to sound like sour grapes, but …"

"This sport is turning into WWF," said a frustrated Thomas Duhart.

As for Abdallah, the judges' scoring confused her. She softly said, "Right now, I'm at a loss for words."

When asked if she thought the fight was judged fairly, she said, with a chuckle, "I plead the Fifth."

Not coincidentally, her parents brought their lawyer, Warren M. Fitzgerald of Houston, to Des Moines with them. Last year, Abdallah sued USA Taekwondo and the U.S. Olympic Committee after an earlier defeat to Diana Lopez. The case was swiftly dismissed. Rhonda Duhart said Saturday night no formal protests are planned regarding Saturday's trials match.

USAT CEO David Askinas said he was satisfied with the fairness of the evening. He's accustomed to the Duharts' criticisms and shrugged them off.

"We don't push the buttons," Askinas said of USAT executives. "We had our best referees here tonight … The athletes who win out here win on talent. I have the utmost confidence that our referees don't play favorites. And they know what's at stake … We want to bring our best team to the Olympics. And that's what we're looking forward to."

According to U.S. Olympic Committee historian Bill Mallon, the Tritschlers are the only trio of U.S. athletes to make an Olympic team in the same year, but that was when a horde of gymnasts represented the United States. Three January brothers -- Charles, John and Tom -- played soccer in the 1904 Games, but those teams were club teams, not a unified U.S. team. Also, four Duarte brothers -- Enrique, Luis, Raul and Ricardo -- all played together on the 1964 Peruvian basketball team, according to Mallon.

For now, Jean says his siblings will spend the next four months training and polishing their skills for Beijing. No competitions are planned until China.

"I've been training since I made the team last year, but I've been more like a cheerleader," Steven said. "Now I can focus on myself, which is represent my country and win another gold medal. I can do that now that we've made our mark."

Jay Weiner is a sports journalist based in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.