Paralympic Spotlight: Rudy Garcia-Tolson

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 10. TODAY, we feature Paralympic swimmer Rudy Garcia-Tolson as part of SwimmingWorldMagazine.com's series featuring top America Paralympic swimmers.

Garcia-Tolson has had a varied background in his athletic career. Thus far, he's claimed two Paralympic gold medals, several world records and has completed a half-Ironman triathlon. The 20-year-old cites his love for swimming as an integral part of his life.

"Swimming is my life," Garcia-Tolson said. "I started swimming when I was six years old, and have loved it ever since. I loved swimming even when all the kids used to beat me at the local swim meet up until the point where the kid with no legs started beating the kids with legs."

The focus on Garcia-Tolson is not on his disability, but on the successes he's had throughout his athletic career. However, his story cannot be told without an explanation of why he wears the Paralympian label.

Garcia-Tolson was born with Pterygium Syndrome that left him with a clubbed foot, webbed fingers and the inability to straighten his legs. At the age of five, when various surgeries could not correct the issues with his legs, he made the decision to have both of them amputated above the knee. The ability to pursue excellence in the pool has helped Garcia-Tolson cope.

"Everything about swimming, I love," Garcia-Tolson said. "From the people I meet, to waking up early in the morning to jumping in a cold pool…although that part is a little painful. I also do other sports, but swimming is on the top of my list."

The Riverside, Calif., product has been a trendsetter in his life. At the age of 10, he became the youngest bilateral amputee to finish a triathlon on his own. He uses prosthetic legs during the running and cycling portions of the events.

"I started doing the swim part in triathlons early on, and as the years went by I started doing the entire race," Garcia-Tolson said. "Triathlons, to me, are fun because it is just you and the road. It's kind of like swimming in that way, since it's a very mental and tough sport. Also, it provides some great cross-training for swimming. My current goal is to do the entire Ironman. I'm currently training for that now. After the Ironman, I'll be back to the pool to prepare for [the 2012 Paralympics in London]."

A common theme throughout any story about an elite-level swimmer is that they haven't gotten there alone. Garcia-Tolson has had a long list of supporters on his way to greatness.

"The list of supporters is endless," Garcia-Tolson said when asked to list those that have supported him. "All of the people who have supported and believed in me are amazing. I'm going to list some of the names, but know I will miss some people. First, my family has supported me with love, especially my mother, Sandy. All the stuff she has had to go through is amazing. I don't know how she does it. Bob Babbitt has also been amazingly supportive of me. He's helped me out with almost everything in my life. I sometimes think of him as my manager, but I don't have one of those."

Also, it would be impossible for Garcia-Tolson to compete in the running and cycling portions of triathlons without the help of his prosthetic legs.

"Mike Davidson is the guy who makes my legs and has been a huge supporter of mine," Garcia-Tolson said. "He has been there since day one, and is still making the best legs to get me to the finish of every race."

As previously mention, Babbitt has made a huge impact on Garcia-Tolson's life. Babbitt is the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). CAF is a program created in 1997 that distributes grants to athletes living with physical challenges. Since its inception, the organization has distributed more than $19 million to more than 3,800 athletes ranging between 5 and 69 years old.

"CAF has been a huge supporter to me," Garcia-Tolson said. "They have supported me since my first day, and have helped me reach out to other young kids who are in my situation. CAF is one of my sponsors, along with Ossur and Powerbar. Ossur [a prosthetic device company] has been amazing, because without the components they provide me, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. From the knees, to the running feet, they are the best. Powerbar also has been a sponsor since early in my life, and still supports me now. All in all, I owe a big thank you to all of my sponsors and supporters."

It takes a lot of training to become an elite athlete, especially to become one that wins gold medals at the sport's most elite level. Garcia-Tolson began his journey like many other swimmers, at the YMCA.

"I learned how to swim at the YMCA," Garcia-Tolson said. "From there, I moved on to club swimming around where I live. I stayed with the local teams until 2007, when I moved to the Olympic Training Center. There, I trained full time for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. During my time there, I met the best coach in my swimming career, Jimi Flowers. Everything about Jimi has been awesome. From the workouts, to everything outside of the pool, he's been the best."

So far in his young career, Garcia-Tolson has competed in a pair of Paralympic Games. In 2004, he won a gold medal in the 200 IM in Athens. Then, in 2008, he won a gold medal in the same event as well as a bronze in the 100 breast.

"For me, Athens was amazing," Garcia-Tolson said about his Paralympic experiences." I was only 15, turning 16, and was not expected to do much there. After setting the world record in prelims of the 200 IM, I thought the sky was the limit in my mind. I amazed myself, because I never knew I was capable of doing what I did. Although Beijing was another amazing experience, Athens will always hold the most impressive memories for me. Beijing was crazy. The Chinese did an awesome job with the venues and everything else they put on there. I think the U.S. media did not give Beijing the credit they deserved."

Garcia-Tolson competes in various Paralympic divisions. In backstroke, butterfly and IM, he swims in the S7 division, while he competes in S8 in the freestyle and breaststroke events. S1-S10 are physical classifications, while S11-S13 are for the visually impaired. Everyone is placed within these classifications through the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) functional classification system. This process is required in order to compete in an IPC approved/sanctioned meet.

Garcia-Tolson still has big plans for London after finishing the Ironman this year. He's planning on winning three medals this time, after getting two top threes in Beijing.

Rudy Garcia-Tolson start at 2004 Athens Paralympics