The Alchemist: Rudy Garcia-Tolson on Training, Winning, and CAF

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Rudy Garcia-Tolson is an alchemist. At 20 years old, he has turned one of the most brutal disadvantages in life-rare, multiple birth defects-into personal and athletic gold, banking inborn talent with powerful drive. Born with leg-twisting Pterygium Syndrome, a clubfoot, a cleft lip and palate, and webbed fingers on both hands, he endured 15 surgeries before the age of 5. When six months in a cage-like steel brace with pins in his bones failed to straighten one of his legs, his parents gave him a choice-continue with attempts to straighten his legs, or remove them both. The 5-year-old Garcia-Tolson, a born athlete who was raring for a life of freedom and play, chose a bilateral amputation. Within a few months, he was doing everything any exceptionally active five-year-old would do, and more. With his prostheses, he climbed walls, trees, and rocks, went up and down stairs, and broke his new legs and feet so many times that his prosthetists started repairing them with bungee cords. To stave off a post-operative bout of depression, his parents introduced him to swimming. Within a year, he was the unchallenged champion in every able-bodied event and meet in his age-group. At age 8, he publically announced that he would swim in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Not only did he compete in the Games, he brought home a world-record gold medal in his class in the 200m individual medley (IM). By age 15, he held five U.S. swimming records, four national track records, and had completed six triathlons. This year, the young wizard of the waters travelled to Beijing, where he pulled out another gold in the 200m IM and an unexpected bronze in the 100m breaststroke. For the past two years, he has trained full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and traveled the country as a motivational speaker. From his Bloomington, California, home, Garcia-Tolson told The O&P EDGE about his training, his latest wins, and his motivational work for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).

The O&P EDGE: What has your training schedule been like since you were tapped to go to Beijing?

Garcia-Tolson: I've been living out here in the Olympic Training Center for about two years now. I moved out here in January of 2007, and it's just been eat, sleep, and swim ever since, getting ready for Beijing. I've been swimming six days a week and in the weight room about three times a week. In the pool, we usually do around 50,000 to 60,000m a week. And then there's the gym, and all that stuff.

The O&P EDGE: When you got to Beijing, how many events were you in?

Garcia-Tolson: I qualified in five individual events.

The O&P EDGE: Your performance that took the gold in the 200m IM was very impressive. How did you feel about your performance of the other events?

Garcia-Tolson: I think my performances in the 100m breaststroke went really, really well. Going into Beijing, I was ranked fourth, so I was supposed to be just shy of a medal, but I ended up taking off about two seconds from my best time, and I got myself a bronze medal, so I'm very, very, happy with that performance. And all the rest of my swims, they were all personal best times, so I had just a great meet overall.

The O&P EDGE: It's amazing that you improved your personal records on every event. When you think back to Beijing, which memories stand out most in your mind?

Garcia-Tolson: I think when the competition started, just being in the Water Cube and being able to swim in front of thousands of people, representing my country. It really sunk in at that moment that I was in Beijing and representing my country. That first moment that I was in the Water Cube is one that I'll probably never forget.

The O&P EDGE: What was your biggest challenge after you got to Beijing?

Garcia-Tolson: Well, I guess you could say that for me there weren't any real challenges once I got to Beijing. All the volunteers were amazing, and everyone that was a part of Team USA, like the coaches, they were all very organized. They basically knew what to do. All I needed to do was know when I swam and get ready to swim. I really had no worries because I knew what to do and I had so much support from all my coaches and all the volunteers. It was a nice thing to be in the Paralympic Village.

The O&P EDGE: When you got your gold and bronze, what did it feel like to be up on the podium?

Garcia-Tolson: It was a good experience to be able to be up there, getting to represent my country. Being able to get a gold medal was just amazing experience altogether. It was a moment that you only dream of, and it happened-it was awesome.

The O&P EDGE: You've said, "Having no legs is really a gift. If I wasn't an amputee, I probably wouldn't have the same drive that I do." What are you doing now with your gift that is carrying it out into the rest of the world? I've heard that you're interested in getting more opportunities to help people with disabilities.

Garcia-Tolson: As of now, I'm a spokesperson for Challenged Athletes Foundation...so I usually go around and talk to little guys, little kids who are in the same situation that I was in when I was growing up. I really had no one to look up to because I really didn't know too many amputees. So I guess now you could say that I go around and I kind of show them the way. I talk with all kinds of little kids who basically have no legs or one leg.

The O&P EDGE: You just turned 20, and there are people like Dana Torres who have extraordinarily long careers in swimming-so what's on your horizon for the next few years? And for the next five and even ten years?

Garcia-Tolson: Well, I think that next year, I'm going to be doing Ironman. I've been wanting to do Ironman for a while now, and I'll be doing that through all of 2009, and I think I'm going to be swimming for four or maybe eight years, so I hope to go to London. And then we'll see what else is out there.

Editor's note:  For more interviews with Paralympians and their prosthetists, see the related articles below.