Women’s Track Coach a World Leader In his Field

Women’s Track Coach a World Leader In his Field
Rice News Staff
Feb. 18, 1999

When he was an 11-year-old boy growing up in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Victor Lopez took up the drums. By age 13, he was a professional big band musician. “I wanted to be the next Gene Krupa,” he says.

Lopez also shined on an outdoor stage–as the star sprinter on his middle school track team. In those days, he felt like he was “being pulled by two arts–music and running.” Lopez explains that he has always considered running to be an art.

If running is an art, then Lopez is a maestro. He is amazingly gifted, both as Rice’s head coach of women’s track and field and as a world leader in the track and field community.

In his 19 years at Rice, Lopez has turned the women’s track and field program into one of the most respected in the nation, despite the school’s small size and high academic standards. His 1997 women’s 4 x 400-meter squad blew away the competition in the National Indoor NCAA Championship meet. He has also produced a six-time national shot put champion, a three-time javelin champion and a national triple jump champion.

One of his former Owl sprinters, Andrea Blackett ’97, ran the sixth fastest 400 hurdles race in the world in ’98. She is now a University of Houston (UH) graduate student, but Lopez is still her mentor. She works out regularly at Rice.

On any given day at the Rice track, you can see several Olympians or future Olympians training. About 10 athletes in all–two are Rice alumni–have moved to Houston to train with Lopez, who does not charge them for his coaching. Many of them cannot afford to pay him, he says. He sees his coaching of those athletes as a form of community service, and besides, he says, there’s no harm in having his young Rice athletes train in the company of Olympians.

“They serve as role models and motivators and help me indirectly in my recruiting,” Lopez says. “Word gets out that these people are training with me.”

Lopez, who has the most seniority among Owl coaches, has an influence that goes far beyond Rice. He has had an impact on the development of track and field at the international level, especially in the Central American and Caribbean regions. The training system he developed has helped teams in Jamaica, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad win Olympic gold medals far more frequently.

Last fall, he was elected president of the Central American and Caribbean Coaches Athletic Conference (CACAC), the governing body for track and field in those regions.

Lopez is also a groundbreaking leader in track and field training theory and methodology. His strength training program–a system of free weights combined with jumps and sprints–has been adapted by other universities, including Louisiana State University and the University of Illinois, and is even used outside the world of track. The NBA world champion Chicago Bulls are among his clients.

Lopez has been a strength and conditioning consultant for the Bulls since the early ’80s. During his first three years of working with the Bulls, he’d fly to Chicago annually. Now that he’s put his program in place, Lopez is less involved but still consults by phone.

When people first heard about his system of weight lifting in tandem with jumps and sprints, “they thought I was crazy and would say: ‘You’re gonna get people hurt.’ But it’s been proven to do the opposite,” Lopez says. It has reduced the number of injuries and enhanced performance, he says.

Along with his strength conditioning program, Lopez has developed more scientific formulas for coaches to determine the volume and intensity of weekly workouts for their athletes. Previously, there was a lot more guess work, he says.

Director of Athletics Bobby May believes that Lopez’s women’s track and field program at Rice is “one of the most successful we have, and he’s the reason it’s so successful.” May describes Lopez as a mainstay at Rice as well as “an international figure in track and field.”

Lopez has been involved in the development of track and field in Central American and Caribbean regions for 25 years. When he was elected president of the technical committee for the Central American and Caribbean Track and Field Confederation in ’78, he says the region was full of talent, but it lacked a formal educational system for its coaches.

Beginning in 1980, Lopez began developing a coaching certification program. Since then, 1,200 coaches from the region have been certified.

Lopez maintains that coaching is both science and art. It’s scientific in that it involves pedagogical physiology, biomechanics, anatomy and nutrition, he says. It’s an art in that an athlete is a performer, “no different from a ballet dancer or a Broadway actor. You have to look at how that person has been adapting to the training. You have to modify in certain situations. The part you can’t control is the performance itself.”

College athletes, “especially women athletes who have been discriminated against, they go through a lot of struggle,” he says. And, at an academically demanding institution such as Rice, “you’re talking about a person who is always under stress.” To keep them motivated and confident, Lopez says, “you become a father, psychologist and sports medicine doctor.”

Martha Hawthorne, the former assistant director of athletics for women’s athletics, hired Lopez to take over the fledgling women’s track and field program in ’80. Hawthorne believes that one of Lopez’s greatest gifts is his ability to see an athlete’s true calling. Sometimes it just takes a moment, she says, for Lopez to realize that an athlete who came to Rice to train in one event would be better suited for another, and he’ll develop her into a star.

For example, Rosey Edeh transferred to Rice from Fresno State in February of ’88 as a 400-meter sprinter. She had been a Canadian junior national champion in that event. Soon after she arrived, Lopez watched her run and declared, “Rosey, you’re not a sprinter.”

“Yes, I am,” she said. Lopez convinced Edeh that she could remain a very good sprinter, but that as a hurdler he could envision her as a medalist at the international level. “OK, let’s do it,” Edeh said, and by June of that same year she was a world-class hurdler. Edeh is still one of the top 400-meter hurdlers around. As a member of the Canadian Olympic team, she finished sixth at the ’96 Games in Atlanta, setting a new Canadian record.

For the past 25 years, Lopez has been researching ways to achieve optimum performance in track and field athletes, and says Jim Bevan, the assistant women’s track coach who has worked with Lopez for 13 years, “He’s been way ahead of his time in knowing training regimen and in training bodies to a high performance.”

But to bring out the best in his athletes, Lopez doesn’t just rely on research. Says Bevan, “He’s always treated the team as part of his family. He cares about what happens to them on the field, in the classroom and socially. People that graduated from Rice 18 years ago still feel part of his family. To Victor, they’re not just athletes and they’re not just student athletes–they’re human beings.”

Observes blossoming sophomore 400-meter runner Kelechi Anderson, “He’s not just a coach, he’s like a friend.” Anderson believes that she and her teammates greatly benefit from the customized weekly workout schedules that Lopez designs for each athlete.

Many of his current athletes are freshman and sophomores. Says Anderson, “We’re young but his expectations are high. He motivates us into thinking we can keep up with the more experienced and bigger athletes.”

Heather McDermid ’91, who won a silver medal at the ’96 Olympics as a member of the Canadian coxswain (rowing) team, says she still considers Lopez to be one the best coaches she ever had. A former 800-meter and 4 x 800-meter relay runner at Rice, McDermid says that Lopez taught her valuable training techniques in aerobics and strength conditioning.

Freshman shot-putter Jessica Sommerfeld says that Lopez is “always there to force us to keep going, even when we’re frustrated.” He can push them without having to raise his voice, she says.

Whenever an athlete gets frustrated, “we just stop and analyze it,” Lopez says. “I really see it as a classroom. We look at it scientifically, in how they’re moving their body. And I tell them it’s going to take some time to do it right.” You don’t learn to fly overnight, he says.

Lopez credits the nuns at his Catholic school in Puerto Rico for pointing him toward track and field. “A lot of them loved athletics,” he recalls. When he was about 9, some nuns encouraged him to take part in the school’s Field Day races. He says it was his first experience in an organized “let’s line up” track event. He’d always win his Field Day races. His explanation: “I was very hyper.”

In high school, Lopez became Puerto Rico’s junior (under 19) champion in the 100- and 200-meter dash. He was also playing drums professionally three nights a week. He wouldn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. and would be groggy at his morning track practices.

After receiving offers from seven American universities, Lopez chose UH, partly because of the city’s warm climate.

Before leaving for UH he sold his drums and used the money to buy two suitcases. When he arrived in Houston, he was “totally lost. My English was poor and it was difficult to understand people. They could have been talking Chinese.”

He lettered for four years at UH and in ’70 won a bronze medal for Puerto Rico in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Panama City.

After serving in the U.S. Army from ’67 to ’70 and grad-uating from UH in ’71 with a bachelor of science degree in physical education, he earned a master of science and physical education degree from Texas Southern University.

He taught physical education at Houston Independent School District’s Douglas Elementary, then returned to Puerto Rico to become athletic director at the University of Turabo in Caguas and national head track coach. In ’79 he returned to UH to obtain his doctorate.

While at UH, Lopez received an offer from Hawthorne, who had heard of his skills as a coach. Lopez was thrilled by the chance to coach at a place like Rice, even though it would be a part-time job and not enough salary to support his wife, daughter and stepson.

Bobby May, who at the time was assistant athletic director, found Lopez a second job at La Colombe d’Or as a night manager.

Lopez’ schedule in those days was as follows: Coach at Rice from 3 to 5 p.m., take his UH doctoral class from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., work at the hotel from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m., go home to change clothes, then drive to UH to teach a morning physical education class. He was pretty much working around the clock, but did get to sleep at his hotel job. On weekends he’d play drums in a salsa-Latin jazz band.

As the sole member of the women’s track and field staff in those days, he was overwhelmed by his workload, but happy–“We were winning,” he says. He spent so many extra hours with the women’s track team that he never got around to completing his doctorate.

Lopez became a full-time coach in ’82 and in ’85 got his first part-time assistant. In ’87 he hired Bevan to be full-time assistant coach.

In one sense he says he can typecast his Rice athletes over the years: “They’re good students and at the same time very good athletes. Academically, Rice is like an Ivy League school, but its track program is better than a lot of the Ivy League colleges.”

During his 19 years at Rice, only one of his athletes has not graduated. She’s only a few hours short and he’s trying to get her to finish.

In his spare time, Lopez is the volunteer editor of an English/Spanish publication, Technical Bulletin, read by coaches in North and Central America and the Caribbean. He is on the editorial board of New Studies in Athletics, an international journal dedicated to research in track and field training. He also writes a newsletter for CACAC.

When he isn’t working, he may hang out with his close friend, a fellow Puerto Rican who also happens to be a Houston sports legend–Jose Cruz. “Our kids grew up together,” Lopez says. When Jose Cruz Jr., now a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, was still in high school, Lopez would do some “indoctrinating,” as in encourage him to attend Rice. Not much indoctrination was needed, however: “When Wayne (Graham, baseball head coach) came here, that was the turning point,” he says.

Lopez is also close with former Astros shortstop Dickie Thon, whose daughter Soleil Thon is a Will Rice junior and member of the Rice women’s volleyball team.

Lopez’s stepson Antonio Lopez ’88 is CEO of TRICON, a division of Pepsico, and lives in San Juan where he’ll do student recruiting for Rice. His daughter Lolita, a former volleyball captain at Harvard, is a news reporter with the CBS affiliate in Harlingen, Texas. His wife Evelyn is a Spanish teacher at Bellaire High School.

Along with track, Lopez’s great passions in life are jazz and cooking. On Sundays, he’ll combine all three: take his morning jog, work on his weekly workout programs for each of his athletes, listen to his favorite jazz music and later cook a meal. Recently, he invited all his athletes and staff–about 35 people in all–to his Alief home to try his signature dish of paella.

Lopez is also an avid reader. Currently he’s engrossed in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom” and “Salsa, Sabor and Control” by sociologist Angel G. Quinterro, who uses salsa music to analyze the culture and politics throughout Puerto Rico’s history.

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