A Trying Trip To The 2019 Pan Am Games ‘Unlocked’ Ariel Torres’ Karate Potential
by Joanne C. Gerstner
Five years ago, American karateka Ariel Torres walked away from the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, feeling crushed and lost. It was his first time representing the U.S. at a big, senior-level international competition, and he demanded a lot of himself.
Though Torres won a silver medal in men’s kata, he spiraled into a self-described “funk” that lasted most of 2020 as he questioned whether he had the maturity and mental strength to be a champion. This dark time occurred just as the world was facing the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing Torres to build a dojo so he could train at his house in Hialeah, Florida, and work through his complicated thoughts by himself.
What started as upset in Lima ended two years later, with Torres unlocking his potential to win bronze at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. His medal was an Olympic first for the U.S. in karate, a sport that was making its first (and, as things currently stand, only) Olympic appearance.
Two years later, Torres is now in a much better headspace, ranked No. 3 in the world in men’s kata and looking to win at the upcoming world championships (Oct. 24-29) in Budapest, Hungary, and then the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 (Nov. 3-5 for karate) in Santiago, Chile.
“I have grown so much since the last time at the Pan Ams, and I am a totally different karateka,” Torres, 25, said. “I put pressure on myself back then: I had to win. Anything that happened wrong, if I didn’t win, was my fault because I was not good enough. I tore myself up. My focus wasn’t healthy, and it didn’t put me in the place to approach everything I need to do every day to be prepared. That’s changed.
“I am stronger in every way, mentally, physically, I will give my all to win. Being at the Pan Am Games the first time unlocked a lot of things for me that I had to go through to be stronger.”
Since Lima, Torres has been working with Dr. Jessica Bartley, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s senior director of psychological services, on his sports psychology. She helped him hone his focus, allowing him to see the things he can control and letting the rest go. That shift has paid dividends, as Torres maximized his performance in Tokyo and has been able to keep that confidence and elite performance level going up.
“I now have the approach of, ‘I’m bringing all of me no matter what else is happening,’” he said. “There is so much you cannot control in karate, like the referee, so all you have is you. When I wake up, to compete or to practice, I may be 100 percent. 60 percent. Or feeling crappy, and 30.
“How I respond now is you will get all of what I have. Not 60 percent of 60, 30 of 30, because of excuses. I am focused to give my all, 100 percent of what I am, and that has freed me from feeling negative pressure. I live with no regrets.”
Torres’ immediate focus is his first trip to the world championships, where he should be among the top contenders in kata, an event in which athletes are judged based on a series of predetermined technical movements. Finally qualifying for worlds is a big deal, as he sees the competition as an ultimate validation for the best in his sport. After Budapest, he will fly to Santiago and turn his attention to the Pan Am Games.
“I am coming to win gold in both. I want to win the world championship; that is a dream I have held in my heart for a very long time,” Torres said. “My idols in the sport all have won it. I want to do it too. I will shift gears after worlds and then I definitely want to win Pan Ams. I will take the gold. I will be so ready to go.”
Despite the emotional and mental letdown from his Lima 2019 experience, Torres said his overall Pan Am Games memories remain positive.
“It was amazing. It was my first time traveling for free, everything being all taken care of, the Team USA clothes we got were super cool, all of it was just such a new world for me,” Torres said. “I loved being in the village, meeting the other teams, hanging out with the other athletes and our team. I will say this: my 2019 Lima experience was better than my experience in Tokyo at the Olympics, because COVID made everything so restrictive in Japan. Lima was fun. Tokyo was really stressful.
“I am looking forward to everything in Santiago being as good as it was in 2019.”