By Jose A. Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — Erick Lopez is the athlete with the largest number of medals from the Pan American Games (18) and the most honored in the history of Cuban gymnastics, however, he has always been uncomfortable in front of the cameras. Publicity wasn’t his thing, and in spite of being unable to avoid the media, he has always appeared quite shy.
It would be easy for someone with his track record to blow his own trumpet, but Erick Lopez has always been a humble and simple man with a shy personality, who became a ferocious competitor on the mat due to his dedication and great efforts.
Even though speaking isn’t his thing, he doesn’t shy away from telling his story, having been connected to the world of acrobatics from a very young age.
“I started off in primary school when I was 5 or 6 years old. They were scouting kids in good shape at school one day and then they took us to the provincial academy which was on Prado and Colon streets in Old Havana. Then, I was chosen and I began to do gymnastics, first as a game because children were made to jump and climb, things that children like doing at that age. Maybe my somatotype wasn’t perfect, but the most important thing in gymnastics is that you can perform on every apparatus and impress judges so you can get lots of points.”
HT: You became a popular name during the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana when you were still very young…
Erick Lopez: Those Pan American Games were very important for me, but I was still a kid, I wasn’t mature enough yet. I wanted to win, but I wasn’t aware of what I was doing even if won. I wasn’t the star on our team, but my score gradually improved and I became more focused.
HT: After taking four gold medals away from those games (maximum score, Pommel horse, parallel bars and team), you went to Mar del Plata with different sights…
Erick Lopez: In 1995, I was already feeling the pressure of the responsibility I had, that I couldn’t lose and I felt very bad when we couldn’t win the team title. We made small mistakes which meant we took silver instead and I was very disappointed, but then I was able to recover and win the all around. I went into the following Games with skill, which I obtained from the World Gymnastics Championships, but a week before leaving for Winnipeg, I injured my foot. The technical team decided that I should go any way and I was doing all kinds of training in the week leading up to the championships except for jumping, freehand and coming off the different apparatus.
The day before the competition, I tried to see if I could run to jump and do some freehand exercises and we agreed that I could try. I was mentally ready and I was able to do everything luckily. The jump I did at that competition of maximum accumulated points was the only jump I made over those days, without even warming up because I was afraid of what might happen. I managed to classify for the finals of freehand, but we decided not to compete because it’s a very exhausting exercise and I won the rest of the events (hoops, parallel bars, Pommel horse and team).
In 2003, I also injured a foot a week before leaving for Santo Domingo. One of the handles broke off the bar and my foot fell outside the crash mats, onto the board. When the exams came back, I had a fracture and to top that off, they didn’t have a platform at the Dominican venue, it was on floor level with a harder mat than ours, which is worse because of the impact. We were already there and I couldn’t go back (I won with the highest points, Pommel horse, hoops, parallel bars and team).
We were waiting for your medal at a World Championships but it took quite a while to win. What happened?
Erick Lopez: I suffered the prejudices of being Black, Latin and Cuban, like previous generations at the World Championships. Since the time of Casimiro Suarez, Cubans have been executing well, but they come back without any medals. We have to do it perfectly so they don’t take any decimal points off of us. We talked with trainers and athletes from other countries and they agreed with us that sometimes we don’t get the scores we deserve. Nevertheless, our mentality has always been to train harder.
In 2001, I got my World Championships medal in Belgium. I believe that having taken part in the Sydney Olympics beforehand helped me to obtain this because we were already being invited to other competitions, they recognized our level. Making a debut at the Olympics was incredible because you find yourself surrounded by the best athletes in every sport. I was very well prepared, but maybe I saw everything so far out of reach because I still hadn’t won a World Championships medal, and everyone goes there with their best.
Looking back now in hindsight, I realized that I received my best scores at the Pan American Games for my execution on the parallel bars, but when we think about the World Championships, we concentrate on hoops. We train on all pieces of apparatus but we always pay a little more attention to jumps and hoops. We even created something new in jumps which is now included in the scoring. At the World Championships, I came second in the all-around and I thought I could win a medal, but I made a mistake in freehand on the day of the competition and ended up in fifth place. I was in the final for parallel bars and I was confident, that’s why I managed to win a silver medal.
HT: How was retiring for you?
Erick Lopez: I’ve been thinking about it for many years now, back in 1999 even, but I’ve realized that it was out of ignorance because I thought that I was too old for gymnastics. Year after year, I set myself new goals and I carried on and I believe that my scores even got better since then. I decided to stop in 2004. I could have lasted another Olympic cycle physically-speaking for the Pan American games, but I didn’t feel ready for the World Championships and I didn’t want to go from those to the Olympics. I wanted to rest a little and I left, in spite of not having any injuries or disagreements with anyone. Right now, I am working as a methodological consultant for the National Commission, overseeing the training process.
HT: Is there anyone in your family who is following in your footsteps?
Erick Lopez: “My son used to come to see me train. I didn’t want him to get involved in the beginning because I know how traumatic and risky this sport is, but I supported him when he first started out. Luckily, he plays soccer now.
HT: What do you think about the new national gymnastics school?
Erick Lopez: The school is very important. It’s something that previous generations didn’t have and new generations should take advantage of it. Our results led to its creation and its a gift to gymnasts today because not every sport has had this privilege. We are already seeing results and I want people to appreciate the efforts and sacrifice that trainers and athletes make.
HT: Being a shy person, how have you dealt with fame?
Erick Lopez: I am very happy because people recognize me and say nice things to me on the street. My sports career was always for the Cuban people, so I can’t complain.