These Women Are Fighting to Expose Olympic Taekwondo Legends as Predators
“Those men took something away from me I can never get back,” one accuser says of brothers Steven and Jean Lopez.
Audrey-Ann LeBlanc was a teenager in Quebec City, Canada, when she first became aware of martial arts athlete Steven Lopez. Lopez is not a household name like Simone Biles or Michael Phelps, but in taekwondo circles he is a superstar. LeBlanc enrolled in classes at the local dojo when she was in kindergarten. A few years later, in 2000, Steven won his first gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. The following year he won the first of five World Championship titles.
In 2010, the year LeBlanc met Lopez in person at the Taekwondo U.S. Open in Las Vegas, he had sparred in his third Olympics, this time along with his younger brother Mark and sister Diana. It was the first time a troika of siblings had gone to the Olympics in more than a century, a milestone feted in People magazine and on the Tonight show. Moreover, their oldest brother, Jean Lopez, had served as Olympic coach. “I was awed by that whole family,” LeBlanc told The Daily Beast. She said she was thrilled when Steven stopped to have his picture taken with her in Las Vegas; in the photograph, he flashes a big smile as he drapes an arm around her shoulder.
LeBlanc said she figured the picture-posing would be the extent of their interaction and was surprised when she ran into Lopez later and he proposed that they meet up that evening. LeBlanc agreed and donned artfully ripped jeans and a fitted, checkered pink-and-white top for the occasion. “One of those outfits that hopefully looks like you are not trying too hard,” she explained.
Lopez put her at ease, she said, solicitously walking her down Las Vegas’ main strip and then inviting her to dinner. He complimented her French-Canadian accent and asked about life in Quebec. At the end of the evening, she said, he invited her to his hotel room. LeBlanc said ordinarily she would have spurned such an offer from someone she had just met, but Steven came across as genuinely kind. “He seemed interested in me as a person,” she recalled. According to her, they had consensual sex.
Emails from Lopez began appearing in her inbox shortly afterwards. “I never thought things would end up the way they did,” Lopez wrote in one reviewed by The Daily Beast. “But I am very happy they did! It was very spontaneous. We took advantage of the time we had. Carpe diem! You have a very positive aura about you and it is very refreshing to me. Like I said your [sic] adorable!”
LeBlanc scoured the internet for photographs of Steven. “Are you a model?” she asked. “You look so good!” He wrote back, “Model? He he. What pictures did you see? You make me feel good with the nice things you say about me.”
Months later, in May 2010, LeBlanc flew to Dallas to meet with Lopez during a taekwondo regional tournament. She said that he and another athlete she had met in Las Vegas, David Montalvo, picked her up at the airport, and Montalvo left them at a hotel.
LeBlanc said that at some point over the weekend, she remembers being with Steven in a hotel room and taking a few sips from a blueberry-Gatorade-vodka concoction he had handed to her. A few minutes later she started feeling ill. At that point, she said, she could still walk and Steven led her to another hotel room where she encountered two of his friends: one was standing and another sat in a chair. LeBlanc remembers that man asked her to sit on the bed facing him.
“I began to have a feeling that something very bad was going to happen,” LeBlanc said. She said she turned to Steven, who was standing beside her, and that he reassured her. “He said something like, ‘It’s okay,’ and began to kiss me and pushed me back onto the bed.” By that point, she claimed, her body had gone inert and she could not move her hands. She said she has a memory of Steven raping her vaginally while another man attempted to put his penis into her mouth. She said the last thing she remembers is the enormous effort it took to move her head away and seeing the third man lurking in the corner of the room.
LeBlanc said she did not tell anyone what happened—and many of the details of the weekend are fuzzy, which experts say is not uncommon in trauma survivors. She does remember that she awoke the next afternoon in her own hotel room, with no pants on, her head racked with pain.
“I was like, ‘My God, what happened,’” she recalled. “I just wanted to go home.” Montalvo said that on Sunday evening Steven called him and told him to pick up LeBlanc. He and another athlete, Amber Means, drove to the hotel, where LeBlanc was standing on the street. Means remembers LeBlanc seemed confused, and LeBlanc has only a vague memory of being out to dinner with Montalvo and Means that evening.
Steven Lopez, Montalvo recalls, had checked out of the hotel and LeBlanc had no place to stay. He gave her the spare bed in his own hotel room and called a cab to take her to the airport the next morning. He told The Daily Beast that he had no knowledge of the assault, and LeBlanc said he was not involved.
LeBlanc, who has never before spoken publicly about the alleged assault, found out a year and a half ago that she is far from the only woman to accuse Steven Lopez of rape. Five former U.S. taekwondo athletes have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Colorado, alleging Steven or Jean sexually assaulted them. Their lawyers say they have identified more than two dozen additional women who allege they were victimized by the Lopezes. While the claims against Jean have been dismissed, the case is proceeding against Steven on allegations that his sexual abuse of two athletes violated federal law.
The plaintiffs also sued USA Taekwondo and the U.S. Olympic Committee for failing to protect them. Federal Judge Christine Arguello dismissed the claims against the committee, but the case against USA Taekwondo is ongoing.
Through their attorney Howard Jacobs, Steven and Jean Lopez denied all allegations of sexual misconduct, including the charges leveled by LeBlanc. In media interviews, the brothers have vehemently denied the accusations. “If you can only imagine what it is like being accused of such heinous things,” Steven told KRIV, local Fox affiliate in Houston, last year. In 2017, he made similar denials to USA Today, which were echoed by Jean Lopez, who told the paper, “I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone.”
The Lopez brothers have not faced criminal charges, but in late 2019, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., was convened to investigate the handling of sexual abuse allegations by the U.S. Olympic Committee and its affiliates. According to the Orange County Register, the grand jury has requested depositions from two current and one former U.S. Olympic Committee employee. Rhonda Sweet, a former USA Taekwondo board member, has also given testimony to the grand jury, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. And last month, an attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice met with LeBlanc in Quebec City and interviewed her about the alleged gang rape in Dallas.
To be sure, taekwondo is not the only Olympic sport racked with allegations of sexual misconduct. The most notorious case, of course, concerns former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who molested hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment. But coaches in Olympic sports including figure skating, swimming, and horseback riding also have been banned for sexually abusing female athletes.
Even against that backdrop, taekwondo stands out. For one thing, the two men who have been accused of serial predation were at the top of the sport: Steven Lopez has been called “taekwondo’s Michael Jordan” and Jean Lopez was the Olympic coach. The five women who sued the Lopezes—Mandy Meloon, Heidi Gilbert, Kay Poe, Gabriela Joslin, and Amber Means—were some of the most promising American female martial arts athletes of their generation. They argue they were squeezed out of the sport after being victimized by Jean or Steven or—in the case of Meloon, Gilbert, and Joslin—both men.
“The conditions under which they could compete were to submit to the Lopez brothers’ sexual demands,” says Jon Little, one of the women’s attorneys. “It was pay-to-play, pure and simple. Except in this case paying meant having sex with Steven or Jean Lopez—or both of them.”
In at least two cases, the abuse allegedly went beyond being sexually violated by one of the Lopez brothers. LeBlanc is not the only person who alleges Steven Lopez subjected her to a gang rape: Amber Means, a former member of the junior USA Taekwondo team who met LeBlanc during her trip to Dallas, said in the athletes’ lawsuit and in an interview with The Daily Beast that he did the same to her in 2008, just before the summer Olympics. Means had known Steven since she joined the Lopezes’ training studio, Elite Taekwondo, as a 13-year-old. She was 18 the summer she says she accepted Steven’s invitation to a get-together at his friend’s condo. She said that after she took a few sips from a drink he gave her, she blacked out.
“It wasn’t an, ‘Ooh, I feel queasy feeling,” Means said. “I was lucid and then it all went dark.” Means said she questioned Steven about what had happened the following day but he waved away her questions. But later, she said, he told her they’d had sexual intercourse and then he left, returning to find the owner of the condo having sex with her. Means said she protested that was in effect a gang rape, because she had been unconscious. Lopez, she alleged, told her she “looked all right to him.” She said she didn’t report Steven at the time because she believed it would be futile: “The rules didn’t apply to the Lopezes. Steven was the star.”
And Steven Lopez was a star. As he writes in Family Power, a book he co-authored with his siblings in 2009, the U.S. Olympic Committee was paying him $6,500 a month, one of the most generous stipends to a summer athlete in 2008. The Committee was also running USA Taekwondo when Jean Lopez was installed as one of two national team coaches in 2006. This is highly unusual: Generally, the organization has an arm’s length relationship to the 50 sports it oversees. It doles out money and resources and delegates the logistics of choosing Olympic teams to national governing bodies, like USA Swimming and USA Racquetball. In the mid aughts, though, USA Taekwondo went bankrupt and the Committee took over its governance. When the sport was coming out of probation, the USOC continued covering the salary for Jean Lopez and the other national team coach.
From a purely financial perspective, backing the Lopezes made sense. Historically, winning—especially at the Olympic Games—has been the metric by which the committee measured success. The committee’s former chief executive, Scott Blackmun, put it succinctly in a speech he gave at the National Press Club in 2014, four years before he stepped down under pressure for how he handled the Nassar scandal: “For us, it’s all about medals. How do we help American athletes get medals put around their necks at the Olympic and Paralympic games?”
Since the explosion of sexual abuse scandals over the past two years, the committee has made athletes’ safety more of a priority. “We’ve taken action to affirmatively place athlete well-being and strong, smart governance on an equal footing with sustained competitive excellence,” said spokesman Mark Jones in a statement. “That unified commitment is central to our mission as an organization and will ensure the success and safety of Team USA athletes for years to come.”
To be sure, every nation wants to maximize their medal count at the Games. The Olympic movement in the United States, however, is arguably under greater financial pressure to do so than in countries such as the United Kingdom or Australia, where the federal government helps fund the national teams. In 1978, the U.S. Congress gave the U.S. Olympic Committee what is arguably a more valuable commodity: a monopoly over the Olympic trademark. This intellectual property has been interpreted to include everything from the image of the intertwined five rings and the world “Olympian” to phrases including “Going for the gold” and “Let the Games Begin.” The marketability of those properties are strengthened by Team USA’s dominance of the podium and the expertly engineered montages about 4 a.m. training wakeups and mothers working three jobs to pay for skating lessons. At the 2016 Games, Team USA brought home 121 medals—nearly twice as many as the runner-up, China. That haul, and the stories behind them, helped the Olympic Committee pull in $340 million that year, mostly from broadcast rights and sponsorships.
The Lopezes collectively have produced five medals, and they have a compelling personal story. Their parents emigrated from Honduras in the early 1970s, and the siblings played up their American Dream cred in interviews, describing how they practiced martial arts kicks in the basement of their childhood home in Texas.
Steven, in particular, proved to be an effective pitchman. In addition to his athletic prowess, he is strikingly handsome, with chiseled features and black hair he occasionally styles into a pompadour. People magazine named him one of their “hottest bachelors” in 2004. Four years later, Coca-Cola included him in its “Six Pack” ad campaign (he was one of six athletes, including LeBron James, who graced the packaging on the beverage in the lead-up to the Games). The Lopezes’ sport may garner “blink-and-you-miss it” TV coverage, but they contributed to the medal count and provided a compelling up-from-the-bootstraps story. Some of the women they coached and competed with, however, say the Lopezes’ rise cost them their own Olympic dreams and left emotional scars they bear to this day.
Martial arts can instill discipline and confidence. The culture of these sports, however, can also make practitioners vulnerable to predation. Taekwondo originated in Korea some 2,000 years ago as a way to train military conscripts; absolute deference to hierarchy is part of its DNA. Before each class, students bow to their teacher, whom they call sensei or master. Don Parker, who chaired USA Taekwondo’s ethics committee, came to believe that abusers strategically carved out careers in the sport. “It offers unquestioned compliance, and some people took advantage of that,” Parker explained.
Serving as a taekwondo coach vested Jean Lopez with authority. The fact that he was the Olympic coach also made him the gatekeeper to the Games and explains why female athletes relocated to Sugar Land, Texas, to train at Elite Taekwondo, even after he allegedly assaulted them. According to Jean Lopez’s accusers, he has engaged in predatory behavior for decades.
Meloon said she first encountered him in 1995 at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when she was only 13, and Jean 21. In the athletes’ lawsuit and in an interview with The Daily Beast, she said he made inappropriate advances, asking whether she was a virgin and giving her a photograph of himself wearing nothing but a towel. Two years later, when they were part of the U.S. delegation to the World Championships in Cairo, she said, Jean entered her hotel room in the middle of the night, pulled down her pajama bottoms, and inserted his finger into her vagina.
“I just pretended to be sleeping,” she said. “It’s like you leave your body as it’s happening.” The following day, she said, Lopez pulled her aside and said he had been drunk the night before. Meloon said she took it as a tacit apology—and an appeal to stay quiet.
Meloon’s roommate in Cairo was Kay Poe, who the previous year, at the age of 14, had become the youngest ever member of the U.S. National Taekwondo Team. She said that at the Olympic Training Center, she developed a “puppy dog” crush on Jean Lopez, who was nine years her senior. By her account in the lawsuit, she had sexual intercourse with Jean at a tournament in Canada in 1999, when she was 17 years old and he was 26. “It was never a relationship,” she said.
On a plane ride to meet in Croatia later that year, she says he coerced her into giving him a hand job on the plane. In 2002, at a tournament in Orlando, Florida, Poe said, Lopez became so drunk she had to help him to his room. She alleged that before she was able to leave, he pinned her to the floor and dry humped her until he ejaculated. “What are you doing?” she said she shouted at him. “You are married!” Poe said she was disgusted and angry, but didn’t confide in anyone aside from her boyfriend at the time. (The boyfriend could not be reached for comment.)
If she had told her friend and teammate Heidi Gilbert, she might have learned that Lopez allegedly attacked her in almost precisely the same way at a competition in Quito, Ecuador, that same year. Like Meloon, Gilbert also decided to move to Sugar Land to train at Elite despite the incident. “Your Olympic dreams are so strong,” she told The Daily Beast, “that you are willing to rationalize situations you shouldn’t.” She said that while she was in Texas, Jean did nothing untoward. But as is detailed in the lawsuit, in 2003, at the World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Gilbert alleges that Jean Lopez drugged her and tried to sexually assault her.
Gilbert said she decided she could no longer train with the Lopezes. She reluctantly gave up her Olympic aspirations and ultimately relocated to California. Meloon remained in Texas, training at Elite. She was regarded as almost certain to make the 2008 Olympic team. “She was an incredible fighter,” says Lynnette Love, a coach with the U.S. Paralympic Taekwondo Team. “We all thought she would win a gold medal.” In addition to her drive to make it to the podium, Meloon had personal reason to stay in the Lopezes’ orbit: She was involved with Steven Lopez. In fact, shortly after relocating to Texas, she moved in with him.
It was a conflict-ridden relationship from the start, she said. One source of tension was what she perceived to be Lopez’s fixation with young girls. Meloon said she noticed how Steven showered a middle-school taekwondo athlete, Nina Zampetti, with attention.
Zampetti said that in 2000, when she was 14 years old and Steven was 23, he lured her to the bedroom he shared with Meloon in Sugar Land, Texas, and had her perform oral sex on him. Zampetti says she told Steven’s younger sibling Diana at the time. It wasn’t until several years ago that Zampetti confided in her older sister, Connie, who confirmed to The Daily Beast that she was told. In April 2018, Nina filed a report with the Fort Bend police department, but it was too late to pursue criminal charges.
Meloon didn’t learn of those allegations until two years ago, but she felt that girls were at risk as long as the Lopezes were at the top of the taekwondo hierarchy. In 2006 she wrote a letter to David Askinas, the former CEO of USA Taekwondo, detailing Jean Lopez’s alleged inappropriate behavior at the Olympic Training Center and the alleged assault in Cairo. “I do not feel comfortable with him working with minors unsupervised,” she wrote. That same year, she also says she spoke with a high-ranking official at the US Olympic Committee about abuse she alleges Steven Lopez had inflicted on her. By that point, their relationship was over and Meloon feared for her safety.
According to a Sugar Land police report from May 2006, which is cited in the lawsuit, Steven broke into her new home after she moved out; the police officer noted that Meloon described feeling “scared that [Steven might] return” and that Steven did not “believe that the relationship was over.” (After filing the report, Meloon declined to press charges.) In the lawsuit, she also alleges that Steven physically beat her in Madrid, Spain, when they were traveling for a tournament and on two separate occasions raped her. The then-head of USA Taekwondo, David Askinas, characterized Meloon’s story as “not credible” to the Colorado Springs Gazette in 2007 (Askinas could not be reached for comment.) Meloon was ultimately kicked off the USA Taekwondo team after posts she made on social media were deemed to violate the sport’s code of conduct. The Lopezes, meanwhile, went on to represent Team USA at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
That was the last Games in which Steven Lopez medaled. He sparred in 2012 and 2016—again under the tutelage of Jean—but his advancing age and a new scoring system allowed a new generation of international fighters to beat him. The Lopezes’ reputation was also catching up with them. In 2015, USA Taekwondo hired an outside attorney, David Alperstein, to investigate the brothers. Throughout 2016, he conducted interviews with Meloon, Means, Gilbert, and Gaby Joslin, a former taekwondo athlete who had started training at Elite as a teenager. She told The Daily Beast that in 2012 Jean—whom she had been intermittently involved with—violently raped her, resulting in an ectopic pregnancy. She also alleges that in 2006 Steven assaulted her in a hotel room when they were both competing at a tournament in Bonn, Germany.
Alperstein hinted in his correspondence with the Lopezes’ accusers that he had found it difficult to bring a disciplinary case as the 2016 Games approached. “Now that the Olympics are over and things are settling down, I want to get moving again on the Steven Lopez disciplinary case,” Alperstein wrote in an email he sent to Gilbert. He also gave the impression that he believed their stories. “Thank you very much, Gabby, for your attention,” he emailed Joslin. “I know this is a difficult subject. I’ll do whatever I can to assist you and other victims of Jean Lopez and other predators who have used sport to abuse innocent athletes.” (When contacted by The Daily Beast, Alperstein said he was “not in a position where I can offer a comment.”) In 2017, he passed on his investigation to a new entity, the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which launched in April of that year.
The Olympic Committee first proposed creating an independent organization to police sexual abuse in 2013, three years after USA Swimming was rocked by scandals. After Larry Nassar’s crimes against gymnasts became national news, the committee provided resources for SafeSport to open. The Lopez investigation was one of its first cases and Steven appears to have been riled by the scrutiny. In June 2017, he sent a 1,200-word email to Blackmun, then head of the Olympic Committee, lamenting what Lopez described as a malicious attempt to wreck his athletic career.
“To those who know me, or to anyone that's followed my career, it has always been apparent that I accept the inherent challenges that come with competitive sports, and have overcome them time and time again through my performance,” he wrote. “However, I now face unprecedented attacks off the mat, and not from foreign competitors, but from the one body whose sole purpose is to provide me with the environment and means to perform at the highest level of our sport.”
Steven Lopez closed the letter with an appeal to Blackmun for “a full-fledged investigation to put an end to this institutionalized witch hunt and culture of mediocrity.” Blackmun gave a quick response. “Steven,” he wrote, “I find this terribly disconcerting.” An investigation, he promised, would be coming.
The result of that investigation was not what Steven Lopez appears to have envisioned. In September 2018, SafeSport banned him from competition; Jean had been suspended six months earlier. There was a hitch, though. SafeSport’s code permits athletes to ask for an arbitration hearing to contest a sanction, and the Lopezes exercised that right. The women’s lawyers advised them against testifying, in part because they doubt the U.S. Center for SafeSport is truly autonomous from the Olympic Committee. SafeSport derives almost all of its funding from the committee and for the first year of its existence one of its highest-ranking officials had previously worked at the committee as the in-house attorney handling sexual abuse complaints. “Having a client speak to those guys would be like giving your opposing counsel an inside look into your case,” Little told The Daily Beast.
Dan Hill, spokesman for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, counters that the organization is independent. “We suspended [the Lopezes], after a thorough investigation” he told The Daily Beast. Zampetti had filed a report detailing the abuse she says Steven Lopez had inflicted on her when she was a minor and the Center imposed the permanent ban on Steven based on her complaint.
The fact that her allegations were relayed by a SafeSport investigator, while Lopez testified on his own behalf, does appear to have had an impact on the arbitrator, Jeff Kaplan. According to USA Today, Kaplan wrote in his report that “Lopez testified in a manner consistent with someone who is falsely accused.” The fact that Zampetti did not speak on her own behalf, Kaplan wrote, meant “questions about her credibility are left unanswered.” While Zampetti had told the SafeSport investigators she had confided in her sister and Diana Lopez, Diana testified she had never been told. Kaplan concluded that “the Center has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence” that Steven was guilty. A few weeks after Steven’s ban was lifted, an arbitration panel lifted Jean’s ban as well. (Again, the women making the allegations did not testify on the advice of their counsel, and the arbitrators said they were left with “insufficient evidence to support the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence.”)
The brothers have portrayed these rulings as a complete vindication. “It was a relief because the whole time I knew I was innocent,” Jean told Fox 26. On the Catholic Sports Radio podcast, Steven credited a higher power for the arbitrator’s decision. “Praise God it came out the way that it did,” he said. “Victory for the kingdom.” The brothers, however, have encountered a roadblock: Audrey-Ann LeBlanc’s allegations, and those of the U.S. athletes, were forwarded to the World Taekwondo Federation. The organization temporarily banned Steven and Jean Lopez from competing, pending an investigation, which means they are barred from representing not just Team USA but any nation in the world.
Their accusers, meanwhile, have spent years trying to rebuild their lives after leaving the sport. Meloon was temporarily homeless and had to take refuge in women’s shelters. In 2015, she was sentenced to two years in prison for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy. Gilbert, who has taught taekwondo to support herself and her son as a single parent, said she was suicidal after giving up her Olympic aspirations. “Those men took something away from me I can never get back,” she said.
Meloon and Gilbert and the other U.S. female athletes were at least able to confide in each other. For LeBlanc, learning she was just one of many alleged victims has been a disorienting and yet affirming experience. She had felt powerless to try to hold Steven Lopez accountable: She wasn't an American resident and Lopez was a martial arts legend. Then, in 2018, Amber Means remembered the young woman she had met in Dallas eight years earlier. She forwarded LeBlanc’s name to the athletes’ attorney, and LeBlanc, for the first time, spoke about the very worst night of her life.
“Now, it’s like I realize that whole time, I wasn’t alone,” LeBlanc says. “I wasn’t the only one.”