On August 22, 2008, my sister, Diana, and my brothers, Steven and Mark, walked with me into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Beijing where my parents, Julio and Ondina, were staying. Before Mama and Papi could take us up to a midnight dinner, we each hugged and kissed and held quick medical debriefings. Over the previous forty-eight hours, Steven, Mark, and Diana had each won medals, the first time three siblings had ever done that at any Olympic Games. I was lucky enough to be on the competition floor with all of them, as the head coach of the U.S. team. But since our sport is the Martial art of taekwondo—translated from its Korean origin, it means "the way of hand and fist"—many people simply think of it as the way of kicking and punching. Our hands and feet are uncovered, so it's pretty rare to see even the most triumphant champion of our sport who isn't hobbling around with some malady after a major competition.
At the Hilton hotel in Beijing, my sister Diana was feeling the highs and lows of her Olympic bronze medal. She was saying something about a migraine and nursing her hand, which would need surgery after we got back home to Houston. Despite that, she walked over to our mother, gave her a hug, and said, "Mama, are you okay? Did you survive?"
"Yes, baby, I'm fine," she assured Diana.
Just after that, Mark walked up to my mom with his left hand in a cast. He had suffered a broken hand in his very first bout of the tournament, and still won the contest. He won three more fights before finally losing in the final and capturing a silver medal. Like Diana, his mind was in the same place. "Mama, how do you feel?" he asked. "I was worried about you."
"Oh, I'm all right," she told him, smiling and patting his arm. Steven was next to embrace my mom. He was on the wrong end of what we all felt was a bad judging error in Beijing. We all knew in our gut that he'd been robbed. It can happen in any sport that has judges or referees. Even when he was walking around with a bad limp from all the blocked kicks of ten hours of competition in Beijing, he probably smarted the worst of all of us. How can you not when something you worked so hard to achieve has been taken from you? Steven reached out to our mother, too. "Mama, did you make it through okay?"
See, our mother is our biggest supporter, but she gets too nervous to watch us fight. Really, when we're kicking as hard as we can at an opponent's head, when that opponent is punching as hard as possible into one of our stomachs, when fists and feet are flying at lethal speed against the most skilled fighters in the world, the most endangered person in the building is the one sitting next to my mom. She tries to maintain her composure as the kind, modest, almost shy lady friends know her to be, but when one of her babies is on the floor, well, she needs to register her fingernails with law enforcement.
In that moment at the hotel, like all the others in our lives, the wins and losses didn't matter nearly as much as our time together. The efforts are always shared and our achievements honor our entire family. There was actually one trophy in my parents' home that one of us earned at a tournament, but without a name on the trophy, we couldn't remember who won it. The prizes aren't unimportant, but they have meaning only because of what it took to get them in the first place.
We sat around a buffet table that night, our matches behind us and our appetites ravenous for both food and talk of more chances to make history as a family. We hadn't spoken often about the next Olympics, the 2012 Games in London that seemed another lifetime away, but we all felt it. My father mentioned it as he proposed a toast—okay, so maybe we toasted with bottled water and sports drinks—and we hugged and spoke of our blessings. Even as we looked ahead, we were all thankful for the remarkable journey of sacrifice and dedication, of faith and hope that brought us there together.