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Former USA Taekwondo Coach Banned From The Sport For Sexual Misconduct

Apr 4, 2018
Originally published on April 5, 2018 10:50 am

Editor's note: This story contains a graphic description of sexual behavior.

Jean Lopez, who coached the U.S. Olympic taekwondo team from 2004-2016, has been banned from USA Taekwondo. NPR obtained a copy of a report, issued by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which has not been made public. According to the report, Lopez had "a decades long pattern of sexual misconduct" and used his status as a respected athlete and coach to "groom, manipulate, and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes" — including minors.

The Lopez case was one of the first big tests for SafeSport, an entity created in March 2017 to investigate sexual abuse allegations in the 48 athletic governing bodies that operate under the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Lopez and his family have been hugely influential in taekwondo over the past two decades; the Los Angeles Times even dubbed them the sport's "first family." Lopez's brother Steven is the most decorated athlete in the sport, with two Olympic gold medals, a bronze medal and five world championships. Their other siblings, Diana and Mark, were also Olympians in taekwondo.

That success has come even as multiple athletes have accused both Jean and Steven of assault over the past dozen years, with little response from the sport's governing body, USA Taekwondo.

The family's competitive reputation attracted top athletes to the training center Jean Lopez operated in Houston. One of them was Heidi Gilbert. Under Lopez's tutelage, Gilbert, then 19, won a gold medal in her weight class in the Pan American Games in Quito, Ecuador, in 2002.

But, Gilbert says, that win was overshadowed by what happened immediately afterward. She says she and Diana Lopez, who had also competed in the event, went back to Jean Lopez's hotel room to celebrate. Gilbert remembers that the two women flexed their muscles in a full-length mirror.

"We were like, 'Look at my traps; look at my six-pack,' " she says. "Jean is like, 'You girls are so awesome. You guys are going to go to the Olympics.' "

After Diana left the room, Gilbert says, Jean's tone quickly changed. She recalls that he threw her onto the bed. At first, she thought they were wrestling. But then, she says, he put her in a fetal position, rubbed his groin against her, and ejaculated into his pants.

Gilbert was shocked. Her first instinct was to blame herself for drawing attention to her body.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I was flexing in front of his mirror. I'm an idiot,' " she says.

Gilbert says she didn't speak to Jean Lopez for the remainder of the trip. But she decided to go back to Texas and continue training with him, in part because he had seemed to promise it would not happen again.

"He reassured me," she says. "He said, 'Once you move out here, everything is business, and you're my athlete and I'm going to take care of you.' "

Gilbert's own ambition also guided her decision. She had dreamed of being in the Olympics since she was a little girl, and a spot on the the 2004 U.S. Olympic team seemed within her reach.

"You don't want to believe you're in a bad situation," she says. "Because the training is so good, your Olympic dreams are so high, you are honestly willing to sacrifice everything to achieve that."

She says nothing untoward happened during the following year in Texas. But in 2003, she traveled with Jean Lopez to compete in the World Championships in Germany. At an after-party, he offered her a drink that she believes was drugged. Gilbert says she felt "completely out of it." Her body went limp, but she was still able to perceive what was happening to her. She remembers Jean Lopez sexually assaulting her in the hotel where they were staying.

After Gilbert returned to the United States, she left the Lopez training facility. Shortly after that, she stopped competing in taekwondo altogether. Today, she runs a taekwondo school with her husband in Southern California.

Jean Lopez did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment. In the past, he has denied any inappropriate behavior.

Gilbert considered going to the police after the second incident, but she assumed they wouldn't be able to do much since the alleged assaults had happened abroad. She also decided against filing a report with USA Taekwondo, the sport's national governing body.

In 2006, another athlete, Mandy Meloon, did make public allegations against both Jean and Steven Lopez. Meloon had been a top taekwondo fighter since the mid-1990s, winning bronze medals at two world championships. In her complaint, she alleged that Jean Lopez had inappropriately touched her when she was a minor during an overseas competition in 1997 and had resorted to abusive practices in his coaching.

Meloon had also been in a long-term relationship with Steven Lopez from 1999-2006, and she alleged that on several occasions he sexually and physically assaulted her.

Steven Lopez did not return emails and calls seeking comment. Neither Jean nor Steven Lopez has been charged with a crime.

USA Taekwondo dropped Meloon from the national team in April 2007, citing failure to attend practices. Meloon says she had been diligent about training but had suffered a broken cheekbone that forced her to forgo some sessions. She tried to be reinstated through arbitration, but lost her bid.

Neither Jean nor Steven Lopez was publicly reprimanded by USA Taekwondo after the investigation into Meloon's 2006 allegations.

The entire experience, Meloon says, was deeply demoralizing.

"[The Lopezes] were rewarded and promoted [despite the assault allegations] because Steven won Olympic medals," she says.

Meloon had a difficult adjustment after she was dropped from the team. She was homeless for a period and spent two years in prison for assaulting a police officer.

Jon Little, an attorney who has specialized in suing Olympic sports' governing bodies on behalf of people who have suffered sexual assault, says USA Taekwondo has been even less proactive about protecting athlete safety than other governing bodies that have come under recent scrutiny for mishandling assault accusations.

"Gymnastics and swimming, when confronted with criminal indictments, generally would take action," Little says. "Taekwondo did nothing, until very recently."

In 2015, USA Taekwondo hired an outside attorney, Donald Alperstein, to look into allegations that surfaced on the Internet against the Lopez brothers and other male athletes in the sport. Alperstein alerted local law enforcement and the FBI to his findings and, in early 2017, turned the case over to the newly created SafeSport organization.

In total, four women have made public allegations against Jean Lopez to SafeSport or the U.S. Congress, which launched its own inquiry into sexual assault in sports earlier this year. At least two former athletes have told SafeSport they were raped by Steven Lopez.

Steve McNally, who has run USA Taekwondo since October of last year, says he wants to restore athletes' faith in the governing body, and he thinks SafeSport will help. McNally believes USA Taekwondo was inherently ill-suited to conduct criminal investigations against its own members. "I think the SafeSport Center is going to be a great step forward in this area for everybody," McNally says.

Gilbert spoke with SafeSport last May as part of the investigation. Her allegations, and those of two other athletes, are cited in the organization's findings against Jean Lopez.

While Gilbert is gratified by SafeSport's conclusions, she also feels the group could have acted more expeditiously. SafeSport issued the Jean Lopez ban after NPR and other news outlets asked about the status of the investigation last week. The organization has declined to comment on the Steven Lopez case, per its policy on all active investigations.

Meloon agrees that the decision was "a long time coming." But she hopes it will mark a change in how these cases are handled. "I feel like we made it to the other side," she says. "It's like now the system is working."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, the U.S. Center for SafeSport banned a former Olympic taekwondo coach from the sport. The organization found Jean Lopez guilty of sexual misconduct against athletes. In some cases, those athletes were minors. Reporter Alexandra Starr spoke with one of his accusers. A warning - this story contains a description of events that may be too graphic for some listeners.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Fifteen years ago, Heidi Gilbert was considered one of the best taekwondo fighters in the world. Today, in her mid-30s, she runs a taekwondo school with her husband in Southern California. Gilbert doesn't compete herself anymore, but she can still unleash impressive kicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAEKWONDO TRAINING)

HEIDI GILBERT: Going to the Olympics was always my dream.

STARR: She made a lot of sacrifices to become a top taekwondo fighter.

GILBERT: My mom ended up having to homeschool me, and I actually fought juniors, and I broke my nose.

STARR: Around that time, the Lopezes - sometimes called the first family of taekwondo - were emerging as the sports stars. The oldest, Jean Lopez, became the U.S. national coach. His brother, Steven, became the most decorated taekwondo fighter in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Lopez claims the gold.

STARR: In 2000, Steven Lopez won his first Olympic gold. Jean Lopez coached him to a second gold medal four years later. That impressed Heidi Gilbert.

GILBERT: You're just kind of, you know, in awe.

STARR: She started training under Jean Lopez in 2002 when she was 19 years old. It paid off. In the Pan American Games in Ecuador that year, she won a gold medal in her weight class. Diana Lopez, the only sister in the Lopez family, was also there. Gilbert says that after the competition, they went back to Jean Lopez's hotel room to celebrate. The women literally flexed their muscles.

GILBERT: We're like, hey, look at my traps. Look at my six pack. Oh, yeah. Check this out. Jean's like, you girls are so awesome. You're so strong. You guys are going to go to the Olympics.

STARR: Diana left the room, and Gilbert was totally unprepared for what happened next. A warning to listeners - her description is graphic.

GILBERT: So he throws me on the bed. And I thought we were wrestling, to, you know, be quite honest. And he puts me in fetal position and starts dry-humping me and, within 10 seconds, ejaculates in his pants.

STARR: Gilbert was shocked. She blamed herself.

GILBERT: I was like, oh, my gosh. This was my fault. Like, I was flexing in front of his mirror. You know, I'm an idiot.

STARR: Gilbert didn't talk to Jean Lopez for the rest of the trip, but she did return to training with him in Texas.

GILBERT: He reassured me. He said, hey, you know what? Once you move out here, everything's business. You're my athlete. I'm going to take care of you like my athlete.

STARR: Gilbert wanted to believe that what had happened was an aberration. She had dreams and training with the Lopezes seemed like the way to realize them.

GILBERT: You don't want to believe that you're in a bad situation - right? - because the training is so good. Your Olympic dreams are so high that you are honestly willing to sacrifice everything to achieve that.

STARR: For the next year, she says things were fine, but in 2003, she traveled with Jean Lopez to compete in the world championships in Germany. And she says that at an after-party, he offered her a drink.

GILBERT: I really just could not function. I was totally like a dead person.

STARR: So you feel that he drugged your drink.

GILBERT: I - there's a part of me that would love to think that he didn't, you know, but, yeah, I mean, there's no reason why I was that intoxicated.

STARR: She was conscious, but her body went limp. She says Jean Lopez sexually assaulted her in the hotel where they were staying. Jean Lopez did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment. In the past, he has denied any of this happened. Gilbert left the Lopez training facility. She considered going to the police but figured they wouldn't be able to do much since the alleged assaults had happened abroad. She also decided against filing a report with USA Taekwondo. Jon Little is an attorney who has sued multiple Olympic sports organizations for how they have handled sexual assault. He says USA Taekwondo had one of the worst records among the sports' governing bodies.

JON LITTLE: Gymnastics and swimming, when confronted with criminal indictments, generally would take action. But taekwondo has really done nothing until very recently.

STARR: Heidi Gilbert is not the only female athlete to allege Jean Lopez engaged in inappropriate conduct. Two other women have formally lodged complaints against him with SafeSport. And at least two former athletes have said they were raped by Jean's brother, Steven Lopez. Steven also did not return phone calls seeking comment. Neither Jean nor Steven has been charged with a crime.

STEVE MCNALLY: 2006 - there were complaints brought to USA Taekwondo about a high-profile athlete and coach.

STARR: That's Steve McNally, the executive director of USA Taekwondo. He's held the position for six months. He says he hopes to rebuild trust in the organization. Olympic sports governing bodies do not investigate sexual assault anymore. Now those cases are referred to U.S. SafeSport. That's a new independent organization charged with handling cases of sexual assault across Olympic sports.

MCNALLY: I think the SafeSport Center is going to be a great step forward in this area for everybody.

STARR: Heidi Gilbert spoke with U.S. SafeSport last May. Her allegations are cited in the organization's findings against Jean Lopez. The ban against Jean Lopez for sexual misconduct came after NPR and other news outlets asked about the investigation last week. The organization declined to comment on the Steven Lopez case. That is their policy on all active investigations. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.