If you were wondering why Lolita Lopez looks so at home interviewing Pedro Martinez and the other stars as a Mets field reporter and weekend sports anchor for CW11/WPIX-TV in New York City, keep in mind that she has been chatting with professional baseball players all her life.
Growing up in Houston — where her father Victor was head coach of the Rice University Women’s Track & Field team — Astros star Jose Cruz was her dad’s best friend and a second father to Lolita.
The years between Lopez’s “Cruz” and “Martinez” eras have been full of athletic accomplishments of her own. She began competing in both track and field and volleyball at age 12, eventually becoming good enough to compete for Harvard in both sports.
While she was accomplished enough as a high jumper to become the national champion for Puerto Rico in 1995, it was volleyball that became her passion. “From the moment I first touched a ball, I knew that would be the sport for me.”
As a senior in high school Lopez’s college choices came down to Harvard, Yale and Rice, but the recruiting trip to Cambridge convinced her that Harvard was the right place for her. Although her life-long ambition was to become a broadcast journalist — one of the few majors Harvard does not offer — she still felt the school provided the best combination of what she sought: outstanding academics and the opportunity to compete in Division I volleyball and track.
Lopez and the Class of 1998 recruits would change the fortunes of Harvard volleyball for new Coach Jennifer Bates (now Weiss). Within two years the program went from last place in the Ivy League to a close second in 1995, losing a championship match to mighty Princeton.
Coach Weiss gives much of the credit for the team’s success to Lopez. “Lola was the glue to our team chemistry. She was a phenomenal athlete and a dream athlete to coach,” she recounts.
Her adaptability was rare. As a freshman she played setter although she had very little previous experience in the position. When Weiss recruited two strong setters Lopez accepted the challenge of becoming an outside hitter — a power position usually handled by the tallest players. Despite being one of the shorter players — standing 5-foot-7 at her tallest — this was the position Lopez truly wanted to play.
Lopez and Weiss strategized about how to compensate for her height disadvantage. She learned to delay her jumps to coordinate with her middle blockers, and employed precision placement in lieu of steep downward angles to score her kills at the net.
Lopez successfully played the position the rest of her career, earning respect from her teammates (she was only the second player in Harvard history to be voted captain as a junior) and opposing coaches. “Other coaches would ask me, ‘Did Lolita graduate yet? She’s all over the court for you!'” recalls Weiss. “She would run with any challenge and did whatever was asked of her.”
Ironically, in her journalism career there have been times when the challenge has been to defy what was asked of her. There were suggestions that — with her bilingual upbringing — she should pursue working in the Spanish language media. Other times her naturally curly hair was the source of consternation with some stations requesting that she change her appearance. “I told them that if they wanted me to straighten my hair then that wasn’t the right place for me. I’ve turned down jobs because of that.”
Lopez also never considered abandoning her goal of working in the English language media. Undaunted by the cutthroat competition in the journalism industry, she was, in fact, drawn to the greater challenge. “I’m like that in many things,” she asserts, acknowledging her competitive nature.
At WPIX, she took a chance by incorporating the Spanish term for home run into her baseball recaps and revels when viewers tell her that they are enjoying learning Spanish from her. Lopez firmly believes that her honesty is a great asset because it allows her to cultivate relationships with both her viewers and the people she covers. “People sometimes forget that this job is not only about deadlines and getting the story. It’s also about establishing relationships.”
That’s why she appreciates the unique situation in which she finds herself at WPIX. During the week she is a general assignment reporter who could be dispatched to cover any news story. On the weekends she is the lead sports anchor. As an athlete and sports lover who began her career in news, the combination of general and sports reporting suits her perfectly right now.
As a young, female, bilingual sports reporter Lopez still often finds herself the outsider in the established crowd of sports journalists, but she has learned to use her strengths to her advantage just as she did in changing positions on the volleyball court. Covering the Mets she sometimes chats off-camera with the Latino players in Spanish, before switching to English for the formal on-air interview, having gained extra insights from the casual banter beforehand.
Lopez has her mother to thank for this edge. After her family moved from Puerto Rico to Houston when Lopez was three, her parents ensured that she maintained her familiarity with Spanish by instituting a Spanish-only policy at home. Although Lopez now admits to resenting the policy during her rebellious teen years — resorting at times to maintaining complete silence rather than speaking Spanish — she is grateful for her parents’ insistence that she retain her first language.
Believing fully in the value of bilingualism, she and her husband Eric Talesnick, a photographer for CW11/WPIX, are raising their daughter to be bilingual as well. Lopez is very proud that the two year-old is already functional in both English and Spanish.
Lopez’s ultimate career goal is to work on a show like HBO’s Real Sports, with a unique, yet familiar, combination of news and sports.
Given her record of clearing heights, it seems like only a matter of time before she is sitting next to Bryant Gumbel on that set.
This story was written by Meredith Rainey-Valmon in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.