Tokyo 2020: Who’s Olympic taekwondo hopeful Pauline Lopez?

Still at the top of her game, Pauline Lopez almost quit taekwondo recently but reconsidered after opting to 'reset and rewire'

Naveen Ganglani

Published: 8:33 PM February 16, 2020

Updated: 8:33 PM February 16, 2020

DETERMINED. Philippine taekwondo standout Pauline Lopez hopes to clinch an Olympic berth this time. File photo

MANILA, Philippines – There’s a unique mix of style and confidence in the way Pauline Lopez moves, which is rare, even for other athletes who’ve earned the right to wear gold medals around their necks. 

There’s a purpose to each action she takes.

One of the Philippines’ rising sports stars constantly finds herself in the middle of a tight schedule. No day is an exception, not as the road to Tokyo draws closer. 

Ate,” relaxed, she asks the barista of a quaint cafe in UP Town Center on a sunny Saturday. It’s one of those days where she manages to find some free time.

“What’s the sweetest iced coffee you have?”

She admits to being a “coffee addict” and sweet tooth, although indulges rarely because of her strict diet. However, she can’t ever say no to puto bumbong

“I just had it last night.” 

Before the recent decade came to an end, Philippines sports celebrated another milestone when the country’s best athletes topped the overall gold medal count in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. One of the nation’s protagonists was Lopez.

Young but battle-tested, she mastered in the under-57kg women’s division at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium. It was her first gold since the 2015 SEA Games, which was followed by a bronze finish in 2017 and a likewise third-place performance in the 2018 Asian Games. 

“I did move up a weight class in 2017,” she sets the record straight. “It was a totally new weight class for me. I’m usually under-57, but in 2017, [I] was minus-62.” 

On top of that, Lopez, a psychology major at Ateneo, was undergoing a full load of units in her college freshman year. 

BATTLE-TESTED. Hooked in taekwondo early, Pauline says she was 'not a girly-girl' growing up. File photo

She was born in the Philippines to Filipino parents, but their family moved to Sacramento, California when she was 6. By then, she was already the middle sibling of Anne, her elder sister, and Luigi, her younger brother. A year later, they moved to near Los Angeles. 

It was only in 2016 when she returned to Manila, however, that’s not an excuse.

“I did come up short in 2017, and in 2018 that’s when I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to go full time already. We’re going to just focus on training.’”

Her concentration shifted to a budding career, and the fruits of labor manifested when she proudly carried the Philippine flag on her back after regaining gold in December 2019, following an emotional battle against Aliza Chhoeung of Cambodia. 

But what really made that moment one of a kind was the presence of her parents, Efren and Chi, who watched her compete live for the first time since she decided to pursue a future taekwondo.

“Every tournament, I didn’t really have family watching me,” she says. With her mom and dad still responsible for the American education of Anne and Luigi, they couldn’t afford multiple trips halfway around the globe. 

EMOTIONAL. Pauline parades the Philippine flag after a gritty finals win for the SEA Games gold. Photo from Pauline Lopez’s Instagram

There is also the relationship of Pauline and her father.

“I’m not ashamed to say this because I wouldn’t be the person or athlete I am today if it wasn’t for my father, but I really did grow up with a coach.”

Lopez was raised in Western culture but was always taught Filipino values at home. Her dad was tough on her, but together with his wife, their lessons enabled Pauline to develop as a mentally-strong athlete who shines when the lights are brightest. 

“I’m excited, but it’s not impossible,” she says about her chances to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

“Because anything is possible.”

It’s in the DNA

“They left everything behind for a better future for my siblings and I,” she says, looking at a distance.

Efren and Chi moved to the United States for what their daughter describes was a “dream” to provide better paths for their children. Both of them worked in the medical field, specifically in health care, and on top of his day job, Efren coached taekwondo. 

A former Philippine national player, his resume was overqualified for the job description.

Efren’s sports career was cut short when an injury forced him into early retirement. While training for the Asian Games, Lopez had his teeth go down his throat after getting kicked on the jaw during a sparring session. 

He recovered, and the painful ordeal didn’t completely force him out of taekwondo, as he chose to pass on the knowledge he obtained to younger generations. The incident, nonetheless, made him reluctant to let Pauline try it out. 

“I was never graceful growing up,” she answers, when asked about her first foray of the sport at the age of 8. “I was rugged. I played with the boys. I’m not a girly-girl.” 

One day, when her dad took her to a training session, she pleaded with him to allow her to participate.

“‘Let me join you. I’m not doing anything. I’m bored!’” she asked. 

“He was like, ‘No, you’re going to get hurt.’” 

“I [replied] to him, ‘Let me do it!’” 

Another coach convinced Efren it was safe enough for Pauline to try a few kicks. She then completed an entire class’ worth of drills and left the two men impressed.

SECOND GENERATION. Pauline admits she’s headstrong like her father Efren, who’s also a former national athlete. Photo by Beatrice Go/Rappler

A year later, Pauline participated in the California State Open with her father sitting on her coach’s chair. She faced counterparts above her division, yet reigned supreme. It was her first major tournament.

“‘What do I do?’” she asked Efren after noticing her older opponent begin to cry during one of their matches. 

“‘Just keep going, then shake her hand, and apologize,’” he replied. 

“’I knew that was the moment when he was like, ‘Alright, let’s keep going.’”

That was also the moment, even before Pauline was old enough to enter middle school, when she realized what her dream was: 

“The Olympics.”

Trials, success, and ambition

“Please get out of my chair!” demanded the infuriated jin. 

Pauline pursued taekwondo tutelage under her father, but the journey was far from a smooth ride. 

Efren set high expectations for her both in the classroom and training, and constantly found micro details for his daughter to get better at. She describes his mentality as “There’s room for improvement all the time.” 

Headstrong like her dad, the young athlete wasn’t shy to also articulate her own sentiments in the midst of heated conversations.

There were instances when she had to tell him, “Dad, I don’t need a coach right now. I need a father.” 

Those moments were usually packed with heavy emotions.

It came to a boiling point when at the 2009 US Open, Pauline asked her dad to leave the coach’s chair. 

“‘I need someone to tell me technique and strategy; someone to motivate me, to tell me what I’m doing wrong so we can change it right away, instead of you getting mad,’” she said, pissed. 

Submitting, all he replied was, “Alright.”

“After winning,” she recalls their awkward post-match conversation, “that’s when he said, ‘I understand.’ 

“He’s very stubborn, just like me,” she laughs. “That’s probably where I get it from.”

TEAM LOPEZ. In the future, Pauline says she wants to provide for her family. Photo from Pauline Lopez’s Instagram

After Pauline turned 12, she started training under former Olympian Dean Vargas, who brought her to the country for a camp where she compiled victories against the Philippine Taekwondo Association’s top standouts.  

Impressed by her abilities, the association later on brought Lopez along for the Korean Open. She had just become a teenager, yet fought 8 matches per day and defeated the opposition from both junior and senior divisions. 

“I really had to prove myself,” she recalls as a first-timer representing the country’s colors. “I had to show respect and I had to speak in Tagalog.”

In the 2010 Asian Games, Lopez was the youngest athlete to compete in her sport’s tournament. Only a few years after starting a new chapter in Philippine soil, the ambitious youth who spent most of her adolescence in the United States experienced her first taste of true Pinoy pride, which unsurprisingly occurred following another triumph.  

“It wasn’t just because I was wearing the Philippine colors or wearing the delegate’s suit. When you go out there and stand, you honestly feel the support,” she states. 

Four years later, Pauline would graduate high school in El Segundo, California. She then took a gap year to train for qualifying in the 2016 Rio Olympics, but fell short by two points in the qualifiers.

Still devastated, she had to compete in the 2016 Asian Championships two days later at The Marriott in Manila. Turning her disappointment into motivation, she made history by becoming the first woman from the Philippines to attain a gold medal.

“I did do the whole flag thing, and at that moment I felt it.”

“It” was the sweet thrill of victory for flag and country.

LA GIRL. Despite growing up in the US, Pauline says her values are very Filipino. Photo from Pauline Lopez’s Instagram

With the collegiate stage of her life set to unfold, Pauline decided to move to the Philippines where athletic scholarships were being offered by top-rated universities. 

La Salle and Ateneo, historic rivals, were among them. The choice to live here full-time furthermore presented Pauline the opportunity to focus on preparing for the next possible Olympic stint, which at that time was still 4 years away. 

“It made me cry, I remember, when I had to cut my (phone) line from the States,” she admits.

“I feel like I’m an [adventurous] person. I like to explore new things and have new experiences because when are you ever going to get these types of [experiences]? I wasn’t afraid. It was more of: I knew how sad I was going to get.”

La Salle had the upper hand in recruitment since its head coach, six-time gold medalist Roberto Cruz, was also Pauline’s national team mentor. Moreover, Lopez was already training in Taft. 

But her mind change once she stepped foot in Katipunan.

“Yeaaaaaaah,” she elongates her answer, after laughing, when asked if it was love at first sight with Ateneo. 

Lopez was given a tour of the entire campus and was allured by its charm, but what really caught her attention was a lasting image of the university’s busy student-athletes. 

“They were running around,” she recalls. “They really had to run from class to the gym. I saw that. You have to excel in both (sports and academics) in some way or form, and I like that: [that] they’re really pushing you.”

Selecting Ateneo also meant a longer commute back and forth for her national team training at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, which is only a short walk from La Salle’s campus. Nonetheless, the required extra effort – and more importantly, discipline – failed to dissuade her.

“The sacrifice was worth it,” she says with pride. In the years to follow, she’s won gold for both school and country, a testament to how limitations can be overcome.

And it will be that same type of will required of her, if not more, for a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. 

PINOY PRIDE. Pauline says it’s alway a thrill to play for the country. Photo from Pauline Lopez’s Instagram

Before the first quarter of 2020 ends, Lopez and multiple hopefuls from the continent – some of them past Olympians and gold medalists – will compete in the Asian Qualifications for the Olympics in Wuxi, China. Nothing short of a finish in the top two will make the dream she’s worked for to come to life.

“It does get tiring. That’s why I wanted to quit this year,” she suddenly admits, allowing a rare peek behind the tough and self-assured exterior.

“I wasn’t seeing why I was doing this [anymore]. I wasn’t seeing my answer. So I had to reset and rewire myself and ask myself, ‘Take a step back, why are you doing this? What’s my goal?’”

For someone who grew accustomed to looking inward for answers, Lopez rediscovered her “why” in another soul. 

“I was getting lost, so I had to take a step back. I think I was humbled down when I actually met a person,” she explains, without providing specifics to respect the said person’s privacy.

“She has a deadline with her life and it kind of humbled me down. This girl is going through so much and yet she’s so thankful for what’s going on.’”

Perspective. It’s crucial in order to keep learning in life, and what Lopez recently learned was that the sacrifices she’s been making – which includes being 11,491km away from loved ones – is for two ambitious aspirations:

“To be able to provide for myself and for my family.”

And:

“When I retire from my sport, I want to leave a mark out here.”

Media coverage

That mark doesn’t mean just taekwondo. 

Lopez admits that she also wants to be remembered for her platform, particularly her strong belief in women empowerment. 

Like many of the Philippines’ accomplished female athletes, she’s been occasionally surprised by local media coverage which in addition to discussing her sporting accomplishments, also touches on her physical appearance. 

In 2016, while Lopez was chasing an opportunity to make the Rio Olympics, she was featured on a profile with the published article’s headline reading: “Jin Pauline Lopez blessed with striking good looks, but love takes back seat to Olympic quest.” 

In the same feature, she was described as “She’s sugar and spice, and everything nice. But behind the sweet image lies a tough warrior in charming young lady Pauline Lopez.

To be fair, media coverage of women athletes in the Philippines over the last 4 years have improved, although there’s enough proof to state there are ways to go for where overall coverage should eventually land. 

“They don’t see what I’m about. They just see what’s in front of me. They don’t see the sacrifice I made. They don’t see the hard work that I put in. I really appreciate them thinking that I’m pretty and beautiful, but what about being smart? What about the stuff that I’m saying? What I’m about? My platform? Who I want to help? What I want to do with my life?” she passionately preaches. 

Lopez admits to empathizing with media who are required to publish features which highlight physical attributes to draw viewership, but yearns for a change nonetheless. One of the reasons she shut down Facebook prior to the SEA Games was because she kept receiving a link to an article listing her as one of the “hot athletes” of the tournament.

“Okay, how is this going to help me in any way or form?” she asks, mystified.

“I don’t want that. What I want to be known for is my sport and what I’m about and my platform and who I’m trying to help. It irks me but it’s not like I can do anything about it. If I retract and say stuff, it’s still going to be me getting [criticized]. In some way or form when I do retire from my sport, I want to have this platform to talk about women and [that] you just can’t call someone pretty and not give them proper credit.”

More than an athlete

Like most people, there’s more to what meets the eyes when it comes to Lopez. She exudes the portrayal of a calculated athlete who’s determined to add milestones to her list of growing accomplishments, but there’s also a deeply-rooted interest in experiencing the different avenues life has to offer outside her world as a jin. 

She’s currently on leave from Ateneo to focus on the Tokyo Olympics, but once the latter is done, she plans to complete her units as a psychology undergraduate. 

 An LA kid, she loves the Lakers and hip-hop, and lists Drake, Khalid, plus Rihanna as her top 3 musicians. A self-proclaimed foodie, she often craves kare-kare, sisig, and all the silogs

She’s a big fan of team sports, which was why she read sports psychology books early in her life, interested to learn how a team moves as one collective unit. She admits to being a Netflix binge-watcher, listing titles like How I Met Your Mother, Riverdale, and Friends as her favorites. 

Is she a Phoebe type of person? 

“Yes I am,” she laughs, before adding: “But then I adore Rachel – her style and everything.”

When her schedule clears up, she’ll be seen active in showbiz. What kind of projects? She can’t reveal yet, although teases it has to do with “action stuff.” 

And that’s all just the tip of the iceberg. 

The rest? Time will eventually reveal, including a retirement date which, at least in the present, doesn’t have a deadline. 

Because for now, she’s focused on one specific goal. 

Lopez rarely looks at anyone in the crowd when in a match, opting instead to lock in on her opponent and what needs to be done in order to win. The goal, as always, is straightforward. 

But after coming out victorious in a tough semis battle during the SEA Games, she couldn’t resist to look at the two new faces in attendance.

Her mom, understandably, was ecstatic, as demonstrated by how robustly she was bouncing up and down her seat.

Her dad, of course, used only his hands to express what he needed to say: 

Stay focused. 

Pauline couldn’t help but smile.  – Rappler.com