By Vicki Michaelis, Special for USA TODAY
SUGAR LAND, Texas - Olympic taekwondo champion Steven Lopez had it down to a science.
He pushed his body to unfathomable limits every day in training, driven by his older brother and coach, Jean. He entered a limited number of competitions to lessen the toll. He kept life simple, living with his parents, making taekwondo his primary focus.
He arrived at the Summer Olympics in peak condition. He won gold. He repeated.
Then came the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Lopez was the two-time defending Olympic champion and a four-time world champion. In the quarterfinals, he was leading 2-0 heading into the third round against Italy's Mario Sarmiento. A controversial officiating call went against him. He lost in sudden-death overtime, his first loss in six years.
Lopez considered not fighting in the bronze medal match as a protest.
"I train to win the gold medal. I don't train to win a bronze," he says.
Then he thought again. "One, I'm not only fighting for myself, I'm fighting for the United States," he says. "Two, when I go out and do talks, especially with kids, I tell them the most important thing - yes, of course, I love the gold medal, I love winning - but the most important thing is that you go out there and you give it your best."
He added a bronze to his Olympic medal collection. He celebrated with his younger siblings, who won their first Olympic taekwondo medals in Beijing - Mark Lopez a silver, Diana Lopez a bronze.
USA Taekwondo filed formal complaints about the call in Steven's quarterfinal match, and the World Taekwondo Federation later acknowledged an "unintentional judgment error."
Steven Lopez returned to the science.
To the grueling workouts at the Plex fitness center in Stafford, Texas. To the training routine with Jean at the Lopez Taekwondo Academy. To his mom's rice and beans at the family home in Sugar Land.
Now, at 33, he's headed to London, geared again for gold.
"It seems like he's more focused now, more than ever," says Danny Arnold, the director at Plex. "And I didn't think that he could get more focused."
Wake-up call in Beijing
Lopez says his 2008 bronze medal "made me realize that anything could happen.
"Up until that point, it seemed like everything had fallen into place for me."
In the 2000 Olympics, an acknowledged judging error during the gold medal match went in his favor, helping Lopez win. In 2004, he won even though he was battling a hamstring injury and had moved up a weight class, to welterweight, from featherweight.
"Going into 2004, I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn't just by chance. It was because I was the best," he says.
As he approached the 2008 Games, he was motivated by the prospect of sharing the Olympic experience with his family. Not since the 1904 Games, when brothers Edward, Richard and William Tritschler competed in gymnastics, had three U.S. siblings qualified for a Summer Olympics in the same sport.
"I feel like there was a little bit of a distraction from what the goal is - and that's to win a gold medal," says Jean, 38, who coaches all three. "But he felt fulfilled that his brother Mark and sister Diana and myself as his coach were all going to the opening ceremonies together as a family and making history."
The London Games will be for making a statement.
"His mission, his goal, should be to go in there and not just win but dominate," Jean says.
The Beijing Games showed that Lopez "can be beat," Arnold says. "Whether it's the officiating, whatever it is, he needs to dominate the opponent so much that there is no question."
Jean wants to see a fierceness in London that was lacking in a 2009 upset that rippled through the taekwondo world. Shortly after winning his fifth world title, Lopez faced Great Britain's Aaron Cook in a tournament for prize money in Mexico. Cook won.
"That put Steven in a position where he had to remind himself that every single time you step in the ring - it doesn't matter if it's for real or not for real - a fight's a fight," Jean says.
Cook, the current top-ranked welterweight, was left off the British 2012 Olympic team in a highly controversial decision. Jean's message to his brother would have been the same even if Cook were in the field.
"Steven's main competitor, in my opinion, is himself," says Jean, who excelled in taekwondo before it became an Olympic sport.
Diana, 28, also has qualified for London. Mark, 30, came up short in the Olympic trials. But he has been helping Steven and Diana prepare.
"My parents, who came from Nicaragua to the U.S. - who would have ever thought that they would have American kids on the Olympic team?" Diana says. "That's the epitome of the Olympic dream."
London may not be the end
When Steven graduated from high school in 1997, he had an academic scholarship to the University of Houston, with plans to become a doctor.
Within a year, taekwondo was added to the 2000 Olympic program. School was moved to the back burner.
It's still there.
"Here I am 12 years later, doing the same thing," he says. "For me, after each Olympics, that's when I decide, do I want to commit another four years? Do you have that drive? Do you have the heart?
"Because you do sacrifice a lot of things - whether it be relationships or other things that you want to do in your life."
Despite the ribbing he took from friends when they saw the 2006 movie Failure to Launch, which is about a slacker in his 30s who happily remains in his parents' home, he remains with his folks in Sugar Land. His mom cooks his meals and does his laundry.
"It is funny, but it's worked out for me," he says. "I think that has had a huge impact on my success."
Jean Lopez and Arnold say Steven is as physically fit as ever.
"He is probably one of the most consistent athletes I've ever seen in my life, in the sense that, 365 days a year, this guy is in phenomenal shape," says Arnold, who has worked with numerous college and pro football players.
Jean says his brother "has another Olympics in him." Steven does not rule out a run for 2016.
"The Olympics is the big show," he says. "It's what every amateur athlete looks forward to.
"I think it's sport at its purest form. For me, it's making my mark in history."