Once Olympic hopefuls, female taekwondo fighters join forces to combat rampant sex abuse
Taekwondo superstar brothers Jean and Steven Lopez were once celebrated as masters of their sport: Jean coached the US Olympic Taekwondo team in 2004, 2008 and 2012, while Stephen won gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic games and is the most decorated athlete in the sport’s history.
Now their medals are tarnished, their reputations ruined by allegations of rape and sexual abuse.
The brothers were both banned from the sport by the Olympic-affiliated SafeSport organization, but Jean’s ban was overturned because the statute of limitations had expired. Steven’s ban was lifted after an arbitrator ruled the allegations of sexual abuse brought by taekwondo fighter Nina Zampetti were unproven.
Ms. Zampetti refused to be questioned by SafeSport, choosing instead to provide a legally-binding declaration.
“Steven Lopez’s ban for life was removed because of a technicality, so I’m not deterred by the ruling,” said attorney Stephen Estey, who represents Ms. Zampetti. “I’m going forward on the civil side and the truth will come out in civil court.”
Mr. Estey also represents champion taekwondo fighters Mandy Meloon, Heidi Gilbert, Amber Means, Kay Poe and Gaby Joslin in a civil lawsuit against USA Taekwondo that says the organization engaged in sex trafficking by forcing the women to train with known sexual predators.
The predator-brothers are accused of raping and sexually assaulting women from approximately 1996-‘97 to 2018.
In 1997, Gaby Joslin was an impressionable 14-year-old when Jean Lopez began training her. She recalled mimicking what the older fighters were doing in order to show loyalty to “Master Lopez.”
Gaby pledged her “absolute obedience” to Lopez despite “some weird sexualization, uncomfortable secrecy and things that just sort of became the norm.”
In 2003, Gaby and Jean were at a tournament in Germany when he drugged and sexually assaulted her. Several years later, she was raped by Steven Lopez when he was coaching her at the German Open.
“It hit me like freaking darkness,” Gaby said during a Sports Illustrated interview. “At that point, what am I gonna do? In a foreign country? I just remember the weight of the world. I went somewhere else in my mind. I just waited for it to be over.”
Gaby quit taekwondo after returning to the US, hiding her secret for more than a decade and struggling with “the horrific aftermath of holding that type of secret in, the horrific aftermath of caring, the shame of having layers over layers of secrets and losing track of what’s what and the worst part being that I was victimized.”
Gaby knows she didn’t do anything wrong but dealing with the trauma has proved challenging.
“I am just recently starting to finally work through what happened and the motivation really has been having a daughter,” Gaby said. “She wants to be in my sport – she sees my medals in a box and says, ‘Mom look, what’s this one from? Wow – it says USA – this is a gold medal.’ She wants the stories for everything. She wants to participate in a sport that I love deeply but it’s broken and I can’t stomach her even starting.”
She went on to say, “I’m a fifth degree black belt and my little nine-year-old girl has started and stopped my sport three times because I’m too scared; the brokenness is too deep.”
Gaby is angry that the Lopez brothers treated her and other young female athletes like they were “on-demand girlfriends.”
“We are all coming together to promote change through the Sports Act and also to encourage other women like me – a little girl who was essentially taught to be submissive and obedient and have blind faith – well, that little girl is all grown up now – and there are many of us out there who are saying, “We know what’s up, come join us.’”
If you are a sexual abuse survivor, it is not too late to protect your legal rights and speak with an experienced sexual abuse attorney. All communication is 100% confidential and there is no charge for the consultation.