By Joe Southern
If Simone Manuel felt a lot of pressure going into her swimming races in the Rio Olympics, it was nothing compared to facing hundreds of people from the stage at the welcome home party the City of Sugar Land held Thursday for its Olympic champions.
“I’ve never talked in front of this many people,” she said with a nervous laugh. “My heart rate is probably higher than before my race but I just want to say thank you for all the support just throughout this whole journey, after the Olympic trials, throughout the Olympics and now. It means a lot to Steven (Lopez) and I. It’s so overwhelming but it’s great.”
Manuel, who won two gold and two silver medals at the Olympic Games, and Steven Lopez, a two-time gold medalist in taekwondo who competed in his fifth Olympics, were honored by the community Thursday with a ceremony and party at the Sugar Land Town Square.
A cadre of officials and politicians heaped praises and gifts on the athletes before the cheering crowd under a light drizzle of rain.
“The support means a lot to me and it keeps me going, it really helps me to swim as fast as I can and perform to the best of my ability and just the fact that people are telling me that I’m an inspiration to them is so humbling and I can’t even explain how I’m feeling right now,” Manuel gushed.
She had some advice for the youngsters in the crowd.
“I just want to say a little few words of encouragement because I wouldn’t be here without so much support from my family and my friends, my teammates, my teachers, my friends, classmates.
There are so many people who have helped me on this journey along with you guys, so I just want to say, set goals, strive for all your hopes and dreams, enjoy the journey – the good and the bad – have fun and never give up. Thank you to the City of Sugar Land, you’re so sweet!”
Although Lopez didn’t medal this year, the crowd still cheered him for his previous accomplishments.
“I want to thank everyone for coming out. I know it means a lot to me and Simone,” he said. “Just being here in front of you guys, I’m living my dream, a dream that started a long time ago for me when I was nine years old when I first saw taekwondo as an Olympic sport. It was at the moment when I realized what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“Just visualizing and dreaming of being on that first place podium, hand over your heart and listening to the National Anthem and having everyone in that stadium stand up for your national anthem, that’s something I visualized and dreamt over and over again and it was an honor to feel that in 2000.”
He said the best part about pursuing his dream is being able to do it with his family.
“It’s just been a huge journey, a beautiful journey and I’ll tell you kids and everyone out there that for me it really is about the journey and what you learn as an individual competing and being at your very best and that’s all any person can ask is just to go out there and perform at your best,” he said.
He added that he hasn’t ruled out another shot at the Olympics.
“Who knows about 2020, going out for my sixth one, I don’t know yet, we’ll see,” he said.
Prior to the hometown heroes addressing the crowd, several officials paid tribute to the pair.
“Today we celebrate what I think is an extraordinary event for Sugar Land,” said Mayor Joe Zimmerman. “Someone asked me what was so great about Sugar Land. What’s great about Sugar Land is the community and you guys are a witness to that. To come out and celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of our two favorite daughter and son, Steven and Simone.”
Zimmerman noted that Manuel graduated from Austin High School in 2014 and holds three world records. Lopez is a 1997 graduate of Kempner High School where he was a member of the National Honor Society.
“He’s the most decorated athlete in taekwondo history,” Zimmerman said. “He’s the winner of five world championships, two gold medals and one bronze, competing in every Olympics since 2000.”
He noted that the Lopez family is a dynasty in taekwondo. Lopez and his siblings Mark and Diana were coached by their brother Jean and competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, marking the first time since 1904 that three siblings have been on the same Olympic team.
“We could not be prouder of not only your accomplishments as athletes but your accomplishments as young individuals,” Zimmerman told Lopez and Manuel. “You are truly the ambassadors for our great, now international, city.”
Fort Bend County Commissioner James Patterson noted that, “Simone Manuel has consistently been a wonderful ambassador on behalf of Fort Bend County throughout the world.”
He added that, “Not only has Steven (Lopez) been a positive role model throughout the world but he has a gym and he’s back here doing wonderful things throughout our community.”
State Rep. Ron Reynolds presented Manuel and Lopez each with U.S. flags flown over the Texas State Capitol.
“Ladies and gentlemen do you realize you’re looking at two of the most premier athletes not just in the state of Texas but in the entire world?” he said. “When we’re watching the Olympics we’re proud to know that these two are from Texas.”
Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupree thanked the athletes for a job well done and commended them for inspiring others.
“We are so proud of these two outstanding athletes who represented us, Fort Bend ISD, on the world’s stage these last few weeks,” he said.
“Today, Simone and Steven, I want to thank you because you have partnered with us to help today’s students, sitting in schools in seats where you used to sit, our students now know they can dream big and do big things because you have shown them the way.”