Olympic hopeful and taekwondo jin Pauline Louise Lopez put her college studies on hold for the past two years to focus on her training as a member of the national team while competing in various local and overseas tournaments.
Lopez was amply rewarded for her efforts and dedication after ruling the women’s 57-kilogram division in kyorugi (sparring) in last year’s Southeast Asian Games in December to bounce back from her bronze-medal finish in the same event in the Malaysian SEA Games in 2017.
She and other Olympic aspirants were scheduled to compete in the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Amman, Jordan last April but the competition was scrapped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nationwide lockdown since mid-March due to the virus crisis, however, has given the opportunity for Lopez to resume her academic career.
“It’s been quite refreshing,” said the third-year BS Psychology student at Ateneo of the experience of hitting the books and studying once again, even if online, during a recent virtual press conference with Philippine Taekwondo Association online program director Igor Mella.
Lopez will now have to juggle her academics and training anew since national team members are still required to participate in the PTA’s regular online physical fitness and conditioning sessions by the national coaching staff, according to Mella.
“I have set up almost like a bubble where I go train by myself where I have my weights and other (taekwondo) gear there,” said the 23-year-old athlete, who was born in Los Angeles, daughter of former national standout Efren Lopez Sr.
“When I work out I usually have my strength and conditioning coach to oversee my training online,” she added. “Either my taekwondo coach from Ateneo or national coach are also around to watch me train and see if there is something I can do better or faster.
“Of course, through the internet, they can’t actually see how fast I can do dome but there is still some guidance.”
Lopez said that she still sees most, if not all, of her national and varsity teammates training online together “so there is still that fighting spirit, that team spirit. We’re training virtually and trying our best to stay in shape.
“Not only with our bodies but also with our minds.”
The lack of sparring, or face-to-face training, has not left her discouraged at all.
“Of course, it’s definitely hard but just like anything we have to adjust,” she said. “I don’t think it has affected my mindset in pursuing my dreams and my goals. But with the support of our coaches, I don’t see why it should have affected my training. Focus lang talaga.”
This laser-like single-mindedness came in handy when she emerged as the first women’s senior champion of the PTA’s national speed-kicking online competition, the first in the world, held two weeks ago over a tough field that included countryman and Rio Olympic Games veteran Kirstie Elaine Allora.
Borrowing some of the rules from poomsae (forms) tournaments, contestants perform one-minute routines based on their actual overall performance and technical proficiency: the execution of the kick, the power of the kick, the variations of the kick and punches, Mella explained.
“The performance will include how well the athletes can execute them combined with speed, balance and timing and will be evaluated and scored by six Judges,” added the former national training director. “You all have to do it precisely in one minute. I tell you it isn’t easy.”
Being a novice in poomsae, Lopez said she asked national women’s poomsae coach Rani Ortega, a former world poomsae champion, for tips in executing her performance properly.
Ortega’s pointers helped Lopez in achieving another milestone in becoming the first female speed-kicking champion anywhere in the world.
Of course, Lopez remains undeterred in her dream of competing in the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games, identifying contenders from Chinese-Taipei, Iran and Thailand as her main rivals for the two spots available once the Asian Olympic qualifiers push through next year.
“These are the three athletes I have been studying and preparing for some time because they will be my likely opponents in the Asian Olympic qualifiers,” she said. “ There is no reason to be scared since at the end of the day, whoever will be best on that day (of the competition) will prevail and earn a ticket to Tokyo.”
Lopez said 16 slots are available in the women’s -57-kilogram division, six of which are awarded to the top five in the women’s Olympic qualifying ratings and the topnotcher in the Grand Slam series organized by World Taekwondo, the world governing body of the sport.
The top six slots have been sealed, while the rest are allotted to the continental Olympic qualifiers. The only qualifying meets to be played are in Europe and Asia.
Due to funding constraints, the PTA has been unable to field entries in the world Olympic ranking tournaments and is pinning its hopes on the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament to send another taekwondo representative to the quadrennial Summer Olympics, according to Mella.
Since taekwondo became a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympiad, the only time the Philippines missed sending a jin was during the 2012 London Games, which was considered something of a national catastrophe within the local taekwondo community.
In the meantime, Lopez and the rest of the Olympic taekwondo hopefuls patiently await the return to actual workouts once they are given by national government authorities to do so.
“I’m sure the PTA, Philippine Sports Commission and Philippine Olympic Committee will have a plan for us to pursue our (Olympic) dreams,” she said with optimism. “This is why I am very positive that, God willing, there will be something lined up for us, and we will be able to come out of this crisis on the other side.”
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