Wrestling great Mijain Lopez on quest for new historic mark - to surpass personal hero Michael Phelps

Wrestling great Mijain Lopez on quest for new historic mark - to surpass personal hero Michael Phelps
Fecha de publicación: 
4 November 2023
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On a scale of life-changing events, winning a gold medal at an Olympic Games would usually rank pretty high up.

Unless you are Mijain Lopez who insists he is still the same boy who was chasing animals and carting fruit boxes in Herradura, a town in western Cuba so tiny that it is not always found on a map, despite him winning four Olympic gold medals, five world titles and five Pan American Games titles in wrestling.

"I honestly think I have not changed at all. I’m still the same Mijain, a simple and humble person," Lopez told Olympics.com. "That’s one of the things that sport has given me. I think that is what has led me to greatness in my sport. And that’s why all my fans, all my friends follow my journey because they know that Mijain Lopez is an athlete who gives everything to his sport, who not only fights for a medal for himself, but for everyone.

"Mijain has not changed at all. It is still the same Mijain."

Aside from the medals that cover a wall in his parents’ house, Lopez holds multiple historical records. Notably, he is the only athlete to have won four Olympic titles in wrestling. The Cuban star surpassed five other wrestlers who have three titles, including wrestling great Aleksandr Karelin, when he won his fourth title at Tokyo 2020.

But for all the strength that "El Terrible" has shown on the mat, looking at him at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, his human side is clearly visible as well. Rather than competing, the celebrated wrestler chose to watch the competition from the sidelines.

Olympics.com spoke to Lopez to find out why he decided to sit out Santiago 2023, what he thinks of the fresh wrestling talent from Cuba, and why his next biggest rival is USA's swimming legend Michael Phelps.

The human side of 'The Giant of Herradura'

Standing almost two metres tall, and exuding impressive strength and confidence, Lopez appeared in prime shape to defend his Pan American title in the super-heavyweight division at Santiago 2023. Instead, he opted to watch the competition from the sidelines.

This is not because the 41-year-old has changed his mind and decided to retire - he continues to train with the same effort as before. The reason for him taking a step back is much more personal.

"It wasn't that I wanted to quit. All the preparation was coming along, but in the end, the preparation was not good enough," Lopez explained. "My father passed away in September, and I could not combine one thing with another. I was not feeling good. I didn't feel this drive that I always have going into a competition. People always see me come to the multi-sport Games with joy, with competitiveness, and I was not feeling that way."

Among the millions of Lopez's awe-struck fans, Timoteo Bartolo Lopez was undoubtedly one of his son’s biggest supporters.

Ahead of the wrestler's Tokyo 2020 campaign, the elder Lopez proclaimed from the patio of the house that his son build for him and mother Leonor Nunez, with prophetic accuracy: “The people of Herradura, the people of Cuba, have to be aware that this medal is coming here”.

Mijain Lopez's older brothers, Misael and Michel, practised rowing and boxing, respectfully. Michel Lopez even went on to win bronze in the men's super-heavyweight class at Athens 2004, yet was the “spoiled, grumpy and fight-seeking boy”, as Michel described him in an interview with Agence-France Presse, who has brought his family and Herradura into the spotlight.

That storyline, however, was almost not to be and Timoteo Bartolo Lopez would have been the reason for it. When he was 13, Mijain Lopez fractured his tibia and fibula in competition and his father forbade him from continuing wrestling.

Fortunately for all, the teenager disobeyed the order.

“What a mistake I was going to make,” Timoteo Bartolo Lopez later told AFP.


Pan American Games 2023 | Santiago

The Pan American Games from a new perspective

Acting as the Games ambassador at Santiago 2023, Lopez is enjoying his new role out of wrestling kit.

"It's exceptional. Looking at it from this point of view, I think it's motivating. You can shout, you can enjoy the company in the stands, and I think it's spectacular. It's my first experience like this and I'm enjoying it to the fullest," Lopez said.

"It must get tense because there are going to be fights in which one, as an athlete, will say, "No!" Why did this happen? Why not the other way?' But I think it's going to be a party, a party where some athletes might come up to me asking for an opinion, and me telling them something. 

"It will be very nice to be able to share that with today's young people who are inspired to obtain their first medal in the Pan American Games and who see me as an inspiration. It is something special, spectacular."

Lopez won gold at every Pan American Games over the past 20 years, going back to Santo Domingo 2003.

While he is missing the most recent edition, Lopez is confident there will still be plenty of wrestling matches worth watching. The one he looks forward to in particular is a potential face-off between his friends, Cuba's Oscar Pino and Cuban-born Chilean Yasmani Acosta, in the super-heavyweight final.

"They are two athletes who helped me a lot in all the preparation ahead of the different Olympic Games. Seeing them face each other, it's going to be something beautiful, a brotherhood," Lopez said. "The one who is more focused and prepared is the one who should win."


Mijain Lopez: "It's almost the end of Mijain Lopez."

Mijain vs Michael: The last arm drag for history

While Lopez’s dazzling winning streak at the Pan American Games has come to an end, the wrestling veteran is already plotting to make more history, now at the Olympics.

Winning at Paris 2024 would make Lopez the first athlete to have won five gold medals in the same individual event at an Olympic Games.

He is currently tied for the lead with five athletes who also won four gold medals in the same individual event: USA's athletics stars Carl Lewis and Al Oerter, Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom, and fellow wrestler Icho Kaori of Japan. Like Lopez, Icho has competed at the Olympics in two weight classes.

The fifth is Michael Phelps, who Lopez considers the greatest Olympians of all time.

Lopez has a chance to surpass his hero in the history books. The Cuban wrestler will restart his training in January with the goal to make that a reality.

"I see it happening, but I won't believe it until I achieve it," Lopez said. "I am an athlete who does things step by step. I like everything to go with the flow. I have to train, I have to take care of myself, I have to be disciplined, I have to have a plan. But I do think I have the attitude and I have the confidence to be able to achieve it."

It is not an easy undertaking for the Cuban wrestler who will be almost 42 years old at the time of Paris 2024, but remembering who he is doing it for gives him extra resolve.

His family and friends, along with most residents in Herradura, had stayed up until dawn two years ago to watch him win gold at Tokyo 2020. Now Lopez wants to gift them an afternoon of joy as well.

"The workouts make me stronger every day," the four-time Olympic champion said. "Every time I do a more difficult workout, I feel more confident and the more confidence I have to meet people's expectations."

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