A Swimmer’s Long, Winding Lane Back to the Paralympics
23rd June 2021

He spent 15 months crisscrossing the country in search of water to train in, landing, at one point, in the actor David Duchovny’s backyard pool.

But for the Paralympic swimmer Rudy Garcia-Tolson, the road to the Tokyo Games ended up even more twisted. There was a last-minute dash to Brazil to fulfill one aspect of the sport’s qualifying process and a last-ditch chance at the selection meet to make the time needed to join the team.

“After all the ups and downs of the last year, it all came down to my last race,” Garcia-Tolson said this week.

This is not where Garcia-Tolson, 32, thought he would be a few years ago. In 2016, after the Rio Games, where he won his fifth medal at his fourth Paralympics, he thought he was done. He retired at 28 and moved to New York City to begin a career as a coach.

But then the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers in Japan to delay the Tokyo Games for a year. The decision came just as Garcia-Tolson was getting the itch to compete again. The delay caused serious upheaval to most aspiring Paralympians, but it presented Garcia-Tolson with an opportunity. In an instant, he had a year to get his body back into elite condition.

There were major obstacles though. This was spring 2020: All pools in New York City were closed, and the open water was too cold for swimming. So Garcia-Tolson packed up his apartment, loaded his belongings into a rental car and drove across the country to his childhood home in Southern California.

But public pools there were closed, too. So he took his surfboard and headed to the beach, figuring he would get in some cardio and strength work in the ocean. It was better than nothing.

Then came a stroke of good fortune. Duchovny, who is an amateur triathlete, heard that Garcia-Tolson needed a place to train.

Garcia-Tolson was born with multiple birth defects and had both legs amputated by age 5. Duchovny has a training pool behind his Malibu home. He told Garcia-Tolson he could use it whenever he wanted.

That gave Garcia-Tolson his start. Five days a week, he drove more than 100 miles round-trip to Duchovny’s house.

In the fall, he moved to Colorado Springs, where he lived and trained years earlier, searching for a chance to train at altitude and to be close to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. After four years away from competition, he was not going to have access to the facilities there, but he wanted the national team’s leaders to know he was serious about this comeback.

“He was a wild card,” said Erin Popovich, the director of para-swimming for the U.S. team. “We hadn’t seen him in four or five years.”

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    Through the winter, Garcia-Tolson’s times dropped, but there was another problem that was not getting solved.

    After the 2016 Paralympics, the International Paralympic Committee issued a new set of rules that essentially required every Paralympic athlete to be reclassified — the process that divides the athletes into different categories so they are competing against people with similar disabilities.

    It is a time-consuming process, with thousands of athletes all over the world needing evaluation, with limited opportunities, especially during a pandemic. Since Garcia-Tolson retired after the 2016 Games, he never got reclassified, and Paralympic officials in the United States told him they did not have an available reclassification slot for him ahead of the trials. There were other athletes who had been training and competing at the highest level consistently ahead of him in line.

    “Unfortunately, there are always more athletes than there are slots,” Popovich said.

    Then, at a spring competition in Texas, Garcia-Tolson showed that he was on the verge of once again being among the best in the country. Within days of the meet, he got a call from the national team. They had found a slot for him to be reclassified. Then came the bad news: The evaluation was in São Paulo.

    He didn’t give it a second thought. Twelve days later, he boarded a flight to Brazil.

    Making the U.S. team in para-swimming is much different from making the Olympic swim team. For the Olympic team, as long as swimmers finish first or second in their race, they make the team.

    In para-swimming, world rankings and performances in the most recent world championship meet determine how many slots each country receives. The U.S. team has just 10 slots for men this year. U.S. coaches use a mathematical formula that allows them to compare the times swimmers achieve in different events to select the 10 swimmers who give the team the best chance of winning medals at the Paralympics.

    Garcia-Tolson headed to Minneapolis last week for the trials, knowing the times he needed to achieve in each of his races — the 50-meter butterfly, the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter individual medley, which requires him to swim 50 meters of each of the four main swimming strokes — to make the top 10.

    In four races over two days, he missed his target times in the 50-meter butterfly and the 100-meter breaststroke by more than a second. He was in 11th place.

    On Saturday, he had two shots to beat 2 minutes 42 seconds in the 200-meter individual medley. In the morning, he felt sluggish in the second half of the heat. When he touched the wall, he saw on the board what he already knew. He was a second short and remained stuck in 11th place.

    The evening brought one last chance. He hit the water determined to leave everything in the pool. When he touched the wall 200 meters later, he looked up and saw three numbers on the board — 2:41. He had made the top 10, and now plans to swim all three events in Tokyo.

    “He’s an incredible athlete, a seasoned athlete who knows what he needs to do,” Popovich said. “He knows his body.”

    Now, he has roughly eight weeks to prepare. The Paralympics begin Aug. 24. He has plenty of work to do. He knows he will most likely have to post personal bests to compete for a medal. That includes dropping about eight seconds from his 200 individual medley time from Minneapolis.

    “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do it,” Garcia-Tolson said the other day. “I know how to swim at the Games. A lot of things can happen there.”

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