Challenged athlete Rudy Garcia-Tolson will swim his most important race in the Rio Paralympic Games on Sept. 13, one day before his 28th birthday. "For that day, the best gift will be to have won the gold medal," he said.
The Riverside native is one of 120 athletes competing with Team USA in the Paralympic Games 2016, who have received funding at some point in their careers from the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which is based in La Jolla. That makes up 42 percent of the team.
"At CAF we pride ourselves on training new challenged athletes, new Paralympians," explained Garcia-Tolson, who is also a CAF spokesperson.
He said he first got in touch with CAF at age 8 when he attended the San Diego Triathlon Challenge (SDTC) in La Jolla. "I never met anybody else who was like me. It was very motivating and eye-opening that there was a whole world of challenged athletes out there," he recalled. A year later he started doing the 1.2-mile relay swim, and he completed the race for the following 10 years.
This year's SDTC will take place Friday, Oct. 21 to Sunday, Oct. 23 throughout La Jolla and will include a weekend full of activities for challenged athletes and their families. From sport clinics, parades, dinners, speeches and walks to the Triathlon, staff and volunteers will be focused on reaching the $1 million fundraising goal and creating a sense of community.
The event is one of CAF's chief fundraisers, and proceeds mostly go to fund the 2,100 grants that the Foundation gives annually to people with disabilities. CAF director of programs Dawna Callahan explained, "We fund everything from very entry level introductory beginning folks, who just want to be back in sport again, all the way to the elite level — that's the pinnacle." The online application for grants opened Sept. 2 at challengedathletes.org
Of the total amount in grants, 89 percent stay in the United States, while 11 percent go to other countries. Callahan explained that members of other teams in the Rio Paralympic Games have been funded by the CAF, "we just got an e-mail from a parent whose son is on the Great Britain Paralympics team, and his trip was funded by us."
Basketball, Callahan said, is the most popular sport among the challenged athletes, but they don't limit their funding to specific fields. "From A to Z, Archery to Zumba, we will support their efforts in participating in those sports," she pointed out.
Garcia-Tolson said, "The first thing the CAF did for me was getting my family a van to take me around to races in San Diego, as well as other local races." Shortly after that, at age 9, he joined a swim club where he was the only child with a disability. "I loved the freedom of the water, I loved that I didn't need legs for swimming," he said, "that's when I set my first goal, and that was beat a kid with legs — and I finally did it!"
He will be in Rio Sept. 3-18, and will participate in the 100 meters butterfly, 100 meters breast stroke and 200 meters individual medley swimming events. Although he hopes to bring home some medals, he said his most cherished accomplishment came in the 2004 Paralympic Games, when he won the gold medal and broke the world record for his class in the 200 meter individual medley swimming event.
"When I was 8 years old, I told everyone that I wanted to be in the Paralympics," he said, "and I did. I not only participated, but I broke a world record and won the gold. My mom was in the crowd and my friends were cheering … that's my most-prized medal."
Garcia-Tolson was born with club foot, webbed fingers on both hands and a cleft lip. After numerous operations, at age 5 he had both legs amputated above the knee, and he began to walk with the use of prosthetics. "There's a stigma that (people with disabilities) need extra help, and often times we do, but at the end of the day, we want to live the same lifestyle as any able-bodied person. Through sports you can get back into life, whatever it may be," he said.
The athlete said he is proud of the CAF's role in training the next generation of challenged athletes. "We want to show people that the real disability is a negative attitude," he concluded.