By Rudy Garcia-Tolson
Rudy Garcia-Tolson is a 4-time Paralympian and 2004 Athens Gold Medalist, and will be competing once again at this year’s 2016 Rio Paralympics, swimming the 200IM and 100m breaststroke. Making history, this is the first time the Paralympics will be aired on primetime TV, directly following the Olympic Games. We asked Rudy about his Paralympic experience, and what it means to Go for Gold.
You've competed so many times to get to this level of swimming, but does it feel different, more reverent somehow to compete in the Olympics/Paralympics - such a historic global event?
To get the opportunity to represent USA at the highest level of sport is a dream come true. And to compete for the title of best in the world for four years is truly the result of having a vision and sticking to it, even when it gets nearly impossible to continue. When you step up to the blocks, it’s a moment you've been training for many, many years.
This is the first year that the Paralympics will be broadcast on primetime TV - why do you think it took so long?!
I think it’s time we are given the same importance and exposure as the Olympic games. We train like Olympians, eat and sleep like them. The same mindset is needed to achieve greatness, and there is nothing different to the approach we take. The word Paralympics should only be used as a timing reference to indicate the Paralympic events take place after the Olympics. Other than that, we are all One Team, Team USA. Actually, “para” means “parallel” - and I think in the near future both Games will commence at the same time.
We have come a long way since I qualified for my first Games in 2004. At the time I heard some of my teammates say sponsors wouldn't support them because they were not marketable. The landscape has since changed. For example, Citi (one of my sponsors), sponsors half Paralympic athletes and half Olympic athletes. Team BP USA has more Paralympians than Olympians. Having more primetime television exposure will get more people interested, and more sponsors will help support Paralympic athletes and the movement. It’s an inspiring thing to watch, and the world needs to be inspired right now. It’s time for USA to catch up to the world on how they treat their Paralympic teammates.
What does a typical day of training look like for you, leading up to Rio?
I stick to a very tight routine. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have double pool practice - one early in the morning and one early afternoon. In between sessions, I have a good breakfast and try to take a nap or do some type of treatment at the recovery center like massage, ice water pool, or hot tub. On Tuesday and Thursday, I have a morning pool practice followed by weight training. I dedicate Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to rest and recovery.
How do you make sure that you stay focused and in the right headspace?
I maintain a solid routine, listen to my body, stay healthy, and follow my coaches’ lead. It’s also great to have the support of the whole team at the Olympic Training Center. I practice six days a week, so on the weekends I take time to relax my mind and body outdoors, and prepare to start strong again on Monday.
What do you eat throughout the day? Before & after your workout?
My diet is a very important aspect of my training for the games. Immediately after practice, I have a PowerBar or PowerBar Shake. I carry these with me all the time because they are good fuel, high protein, and help me recover strength.
Then for breakfast I normally have a complex carb, protein, and some fruit. I have a lighter lunch, and then snack on a protein bar or shake and fruit in the afternoon. For dinner, I usually have pasta and a protein.
How important is what you eat to your success?
Listening to your body is so important. I burn a lot of calories, so I can technically eat whatever I want. Instead of taking a more relaxed approach, I recognize that I need complex carbs and protein for strength. As the games get closer and closer, I make sure my diet is even healthier. I am a creature of habit. Once I know something works for me, I can do it over and over.
It seems like every time someone has told you that you can’t do something, you find a way to prove them wrong. Where do you turn - either outward or inward - for the source of your mental strength and dedication?
Most definitely inward. As a young kid, I was told many times I would not be able to do this or that, but I’ve always believed that a positive attitude can take you far. At different stages of my life and career, I have questioned myself and had to stay strong and overcome insecurities that have presented themselves along the way. Some days are better than others, but each new day brings a fresh start.
Of course, the love and support of the people in my life helps me build confidence. The people who love you don't see your limitations, they only see what you are capable of. They help me stay strong and push hard.
Any advice for someone looking to take their athletic training to the next level?
My advice to up-and-coming athletes is to have a clear vision of what you want and to push hard, no matter what people say. There will be moments of uncertainty, so you need to always remember the drive and passion that started it all. Everything else will fall into place, with dedication, endurance, and hard work.
I would also say, never let success get to your head. Stay humble ALWAYS. Just as hard as you are working, there is someone working harder trying to take it from you.
Since his first Paralympic Games in 2004 at the age of 16, Rudy Garcia-Tolson has become an ambassador for Paralympic sport. Born with multiple birth defects, including Pterygium Syndrome, a club foot, webbed fingers, and a cleft lip and palate, Rudy endured 15 surgeries by the age of five before telling his parents he'd rather have a double leg amputation. By age 8, he had already become active in swimming, running, and triathlons. At that age, he stated that he wanted to compete at the Paralympic Games, and eight years later, he made good on his promise when he swam to gold at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games.
Since then, Rudy has added more Paralympic medals to his collection and accomplished more in his career, including becoming the world's first double above-knee amputee to complete an Ironman triathlon in 2009. He has been featured on numerous media publications and television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, The New York Times, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated, and was named as one of People Magazine's “20 Teens Who Will Change the World.” Rudy has won several awards, including ESPN's ARETE Courage in Sports Award, Nike's Casey Martin Award, and was nominated for an ESPY. He continues to make an impact in his community through his work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and as a motivational speaker, sharing his message that “A brave heart is a powerful weapon.”