Along with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments through the rest of the year.
Rudy Garcia-Tolson thought he was done.
He had been to the Paralympics four times. He had won five medals, four in swimming and one in track and field, all by the age of 27.
In 2017 Garcia-Tolson called it a career and moved to New York, where his girlfriend lived. He found work at a triathlon studio, picked up some coaching gigs, and started managing a sports program for challenged youth. He reversed course for a few weeks in 2018, when he decided to start swimming again. He couldn’t complete a workout. The fire was gone.
And then, in late March, as the novel coronavirus spread across the globe, the International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics for a year, and Garcia-Tolson got the itch to train and compete again.
Born with a series of congenital defects, Garcia-Tolson grew up in Southern California and had both legs amputated above the knee by the age of 5. At six, he learned to swim. At 8 he joined a swim team, training with and racing against kids with two arms and two legs.
At first he always finished last. He hated that. “I never accepted the cheers because I knew they were just giving me the pity clap,” he said.
He swore one day he would not come in last. It only took a few months. He won his first gold medal when he was 16. Now he wants to win again.
A problem — pools in New York remain closed, forcing Garcia-Tolson to limit his training to strength conditioning. He will be in the water soon. Next month he plans to move to Colorado Springs to begin preparing once more at the Olympic Training Center.
“I’m basically starting from scratch,” Garcia-Tolson said this week by phone from his Brooklyn apartment.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
The Paralympics have always been huge for me. At 9, I set the goal of wanting to go to the Paralympics. I went to my first World Championships at 14 in Argentina. Two years later I went to my first Olympics in Athens. I skipped the opening ceremony because my event was the next morning. I swam 10 seconds faster than I had ever gone before in the preliminary and broke the world record, and came back that night and won the gold medal.
I didn’t think I would be doing this again. After Rio, I started to think about trying to do something else and get a real job. It was all a part of my coming to New York. I was not getting the itch to compete. I was a little burned out. I tried to start training in 2018. I would get in the pool to swim for an hour and I would only make it 20 minutes. I didn’t have the motivation to push myself.
I needed to separate myself from high level performance. Now I don’t want to. In New York I have gone out of my comfort zone. I’ve learned a lot from working. My whole life I feel like I have had people trying to give me advice. When I graduated high school people gave me a hard time for not going right to college. I’ve learned this is my ride and my life, and I am going to do what I want to do. I’ve learned to make decisions on my own.
Then everything changed. When I heard that they were postponing the Paralympics for a full year I really asked myself if I should miss this opportunity. I don’t want to sound like I am taking advantage of something bad happening, but this is something I really wanted to do. I want to swim again. I want to compete again. I want to be a part of a team.
In New York I’ve been coaching and working with New York Road Runners. The whole time I felt like I was missing something. I missed the whole training environment. It’s part of who I am, it’s part of my life. I had to step away from a part of who I was. Now I feel like I got a second chance. With all that said, now that I have made the decision to go back, I could make it to the Paralympic trials and not make the team. It’s a risk. You don’t know what’s going to happen. That is why I love sport and love swimming
Yes, I am older. I believe that will be a plus. I’m 31 years old now. I haven’t been swimming seriously in a while. My shoulders are going to hurt. I talked to my coach, Nathan Manley, who has trained me for the Paralympics before. He said it’s a very young team that we have now. He thinks it’s going to be helpful to have me around to provide some veteran leadership.
What is going to happen if I make these big changes in my life and two weeks in I am like “What am I doing?” Whenever you go through change, there will be negative thoughts. I am going to ignore those. I’m looking forward to getting out of my house, going for hikes and walks and having teammates who can motivate me.
I’ve gone through tough times before. At the training center, there were long stretches with no competition and just day in and day out training. I’ve had tough times with coaches and with teammates I came across who did not want to perform at a high level on a daily basis. That is contagious on a pool deck. I’ve done a lot of yelling on pool decks when someone is not performing or working as they should.
This is not going to be easy. I have lost 10 to 15 pounds of muscle. I’ve slimmed down a lot. At the beginning of the lockdown I was running a lot. I got up to 10 miles a day in Brooklyn, but my legs were not fitting correctly. When I was running, cardio-wise I was going good, seven-minute miles, an hour or an hour and a half, no problem. It doesn’t take me long.
I am going to go to Seattle to get new legs made and continue to do cardio. Plus situps, push-ups, a lot of body weight exercise, basic calisthenics. I just need a few weeks. I know after two or three weeks in the pool I will feel back. It will take two to three months to feel confident, to know whether I am making some of the time intervals I need, and where I need to go.
We don’t know what is going to happen, but that’s fine. I realize there is no guarantee that there will be a Games. That is out of my control, so I don’t put too much thought into it. Whether the Games are held or if there is some 13- or 14-year-old boy who comes through and beats me, nothing is ever 100 percent locked in.