Final Season Of Swimming Is One To Embrace For Five-Time Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Rudy Garcia-Tolson gets ready to compete in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 30, 2021 in Tokyo.


Rudy Garcia-Tolson knows you’ve heard this story before.

But this time, the veteran Para swimmer promises the happy tale will have a different ending.
Garcia-Tolson, a five-time Paralympian who has won five medals in swimming, is retiring from the sport after June’s World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Spain. He retired once before from swimming, after the Rio 2016 Paralympics, but changed his mind.
This time he means it, which makes events such as last weekend’s Para Swimming World Series event in Indianapolis so special. He won gold in the 200-meter individual medley and bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke, and said he feels some closure. One of his first big events in Para swimming, at age 8, came at this same Indiana University Natatorium.
“It was a good weekend, with a lot of good racing,” said Garcia-Tolson, who grew up in Bloomington, California. “Honestly, though, I have to say this was not nearly what I was hoping for, timewise. I need to do better than OK at worlds. And I will, I have a lot more in the tank. At worlds, I am going to leave it all out there. That is going to be it. 
“It felt perfect to know how far I have come, from starting as a little kid at that pool and now leaving it with so many wonderful experiences.”
The U.S. team for the world championships will be named April 15. Garcia-Tolson wants to swim a full slate, around 4-5 individual events, at the June 12-18 competition. 
“I will definitely swim faster than I did in Tokyo,” he said. “Those Paralympics were a challenge for me, just getting to the trials and on the team was a big challenge. So for worlds, I have something to prove to myself. I want to go hard.”
Garcia-Tolson failed to medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, marking the first time he did not come home from the Games with hardware. 
Also, Garcia-Tolson’s impending retirement from swimming is more of a transition in his elite athletic career than an end. He is shifting full-time to paratriathlon, with the goals of competing at the Paris Paralympics in 2024 and then Los Angeles in 2028.

Rudy Garcia-Tolson competes in the men's 4×100-meter freestyle relay during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2022 on Aug. 30, 2021 in Tokyo.


He said triathlon is his first love, having started competing in the sport as a child. He has competed in Ironman and half-tris, and knows his experience in the pool and as track-and-field athlete at the 2012 London Games will make him formidable. The bike is the weak spot, but he now will have additional time after retiring from swimming to focus on that area.
Paratriathlon was first included at the Paralympic Games in 2016, but Garcia-Tolson’s classification, for a double above-the-knee amputee, was not added to the program until Paris. He will be competing against single leg above-the-knee amputees but said he still feels they are all equal.
“I am shooting to get on that podium, because I know I have the 100 percent ability to be competitive,” Garcia-Tolson, 33, said. “I am in my prime, athletically, so I know what I can do as a triathlete. I know I can out-run a single above-the-knee amputee, I know I can out-swim them, so I need to get the bike right. I’ve done the 112 miles (biking) of the Ironman, the 56 of the half. So having 12 miles for the Para distance is like a sprint for me. It’s a game changer, I can be fast.”
The difference in distance from the Ironman to the Paralympic paratriathlon also means Garcia-Tolson can calibrate his training effectively. Less time in the pool, and less wear and tear on the road and bike.
“I won’t be on the bike four or five hours or in the pool two or three, more like 35- to 40-minute sessions,” he said. “That’s huge on the body. I like that.”

Rudy Garcia-Tolson poses with Cody McCasland at a Para Swimming World Series event on April 9, 2022 in Indianapolis, Ind.


Leaving swimming behind is bittersweet, but he can see the impact of his career on the sport. In Indianapolis, Garcia-Tolson swam next to fellow American Cody McCasland in the 400 free. He’s mentored McCasland, 20, since he was small, through their association in the Challenged Athletes Foundation. 
The two shared a special moment in the pool over the weekend, after Garcia-Tolson won the race. He said he realized how the sport has changed so much since he started more than 25 years ago.
“Representation matters, and I know that what we are doing is bringing the power of inspiration that can change people’s lives,” he said. “Those are critically important. Even if I can just inspire one kid in North Dakota who may see me competing, then that is the big difference. The Para athletes who are coming up behind us, like Cody, are going to take things even farther.
“That being said, I’ve got a lot left in me to give. I’m ready to give the tri all I’ve got.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.