DENHAM SPRINGS - After nearly two years of waiting, Denham Springs native James Lopez III finally got the opportunity he was hoping for – a chance to spar with the best at the USKA World Karate Championship in Phoenix, AZ.
Lopez made the most of those chances, too.
The 12-year-old finished second in team sparring, second in self-defense and third in team kata, with each event earning him a medal.
Lopez also placed in two other events, earning second in kata and third in sparring, bringing him a pair of trophies in those two events.
None of that comes as a surprise to his mother Paulette Lopez, who’s helped feed her son’s passion for martial arts.
“He works very hard,” she said. “He’s at the dojo more than he’s at home. He practices everywhere we go. He’s a part of a young leadership program that helps teach the younger kids everything. He not only goes to his regular classes, but he goes to the younger classes as well so he can help teach. We’re at karate every night they have karate classes.”
Lopez’ interest in martial arts started by watching the movies of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan at a young age, mimicking the two actors’ moves in his own living room. That spurred Paulette to put her then three-year-old son into a dojo in St. Bernard Parish near their home.
The Lopez family moved into Denham Springs to be closer to an ailing relative, a move that meant finding James a new gym to attend.
Paulette struggled to find a new gym instructor in the weeks immediately after the move, until James came home one day talking about a karate instructor named Ray Effler that had visited his school.
“He kept saying, ‘Mom, you have to meet this guy. He’s so cool. I really want to go to his school,’” Paulette Lopez said. “I went and met him, and he had a great set of ideals. I wanted my son to go to a place than would teach when it was okay to do this or do that.
“I wanted someone who had good integrity when it came to teaching my son,” Paulette continued. “This gentleman has taught my son respect in everything. He cleans up the house, he keeps his grades up, even when he spends so much time in the dojo.”
Despite dedicating himself to the craft, Lopez had to wait for a chance to compete at a level as high at the USKA World Karate Championships. It was around that time that James found out his mother had cancer.
“We found out that I was sick with cancer,” Paulette Lopez said. “We didn’t tell the kids because I figured they were too young to know. I just told them I had to have surgery and that mom was sick. When I started having to go for treatment, I just told them I was going to have these injections that would help me get better. He kept hearing things like oncology and infusion and chemo, and he looked it up on his iPad and put two and two together. He asked me if I was sick and I said, ‘Yes I am.’”
The cancer diagnosis meant that Paulette and James couldn’t travel to their usual list of tournaments. Still, James wanted to be included in the team photo that he took with the rest of his classmates, despite not being able to attend.
Tragedy struck again three months ago when James’ oldest brother Brian lost his life in a motorcycle accident. When James returned home from Phoenix, he placed one of his medals next to his brother’s urn on the mantle.
It’s remained there ever since.
Lopez’ tournament circuit didn’t stop with the USKA World Karate Championship, though Paulette said that he’s back training for another tournament later this month.
“We’re already scheduled to go to Mandeville for the Heart of a Hero tournament,” she said.