A hush came over the group of triathlon fans at the starting area for the Arizona Ironman. More than 2,500 athletes loosened their muscles, preparing to jump into the cool Tempe Town Lake for a 2.4-mile swim, the first leg of the three-event endurance race. And that’s when Rudy came walking by.
People began to notice him. Athletes moved aside for their peer. And fans began to cheer and clap for the 21- year-old simply known by his first name.
“All of them parted like the Red Sea and began clapping and giving him his props,” says Bob Babbitt, vice president of the Challenged Athletes Foundation and one of Rudy’s mentors. “Everybody knows Rudy. Everybody. He’s like Madonna—you don’t need to know his last name.”
For the record, it’s Garcia-Tolson.
The applause, before the race even began, was a sign of Rudy’s impact. The bilateral above-knee amputee has competed in two Paralympic Games, earning three medals in swimming, and was about to embark on what he describes as his crowning achievement: an Ironman Triathlon. He had once attempted the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, but missed the bike cutoff by 8 minutes.
This time, in Tempe, Arizona, there would be no misses. Rudy finished in 16:06:27, becoming the first bilateral above-knee amputee to complete an Ironman. His swim time was 1:00:42, his 112-mile bike ride was completed in 8:44:45, and he blasted through the 26.2-mile marathon in 6:00:22. When Rudy came running across the finish line in the dark, his fists pumping upward, he almost looked like he could go do it all over again. But he admitted it wasn’t easy.
“It was definitely a day of pain,” Rudy says. “I was just excited to see that finish line and to be able to call myself an Ironman. That was pretty exciting.”
As might be expected, Rudy’s training for the race was intense. Missing the cut in Kona prompted the athlete to revamp his schedule for the November Ironman and move in with his coach, Muddy Waters. Together, they focused intently on things like nutrition, eating schedules and recovery. And Rudy spent a lot of time on the bike.
By his own admission, Rudy has always struggled with the bike portion of the triathlon because his dual amputations, which occurred when he was age five, have left him with no quadriceps. Rudy was born with Pterygium Syndrome, a clubfoot, webbed fingers on both hands, a cleft lip and palate. Some might say the deck was stacked against him.
Soon after his amputations, Rudy’s mother had asked doctor Michael Davidson a critical question: “When is he going to walk and run again?” Davidson couldn’t give a definite answer, but it wasn’t long before he had found he would probably need one: Davidson once walked out of his office to greet Rudy and saw the youngster doing a handstand on his walker. “If this kid is going to run,” Davidson had told Babbitt, “I’d better figure it out.”
Doctor and the patient began working together to improve upon Rudy’s existing prosthetic running legs. Davidson would provide the young man with legs to try, after which Rudy would provide feedback.
It was not a smooth process. “Rudy broke over 50 legs as he tested what worked and what didn’t work,” Babbitt recalls. “So Michael would sit and ask him questions about the legs—why it broke, how it broke—and would be turning the leg as he talked, and Tootsie Rolls would fall out. Here’s this prosthetist working on a project and his partner is hiding candy in the leg.”
Nevertheless, within a year of undergoing his amputations, Rudy was riding a bike. He used large training wheels on the side to assist with balance. Then he got bored, came home one afternoon, decided to take the training wheels off, and he never put them back on.
Rudy admits powering up hills remains the toughest part of any marathon, since he cannot stand up to power his bike through the steep grades. In contrast to bikers who rely primarily on leg power, Rudy’s force comes in large part from his gluteus muscles. While training for the Arizona Ironman, Rudy deliberately changed his position on the bike to give him more leverage in the seat and to shift some of the output to below his waist.
“I put it in a low gear and spin it,” Rudy explains. “Still, my muscles get fatigued after 70, 80 miles. I like to challenge myself. Since I do have some legs, I want to take advantage of them.”
Babbitt says Rudy’s habitual positivity and determination were powerful assets in training for the Ironman.
“I remember we were riding up a mountain and all of a sudden his cleats stopped working,” Babbitt says. “His right cleat would come out, so he’d just start pedalling with his left foot. Then his left cleat would come out and he would coast all the way to the bottom and have to start over. But not once did this guy complain. He would always say, ‘OK, it’s no big deal.’”
Rudy’s infectious optimism has also made him a natural mentor for other young amputees. He frequently travels across the country just to talk one-on-one with youngsters who are facing the same road he once did. Rudy says he relishes the opportunity to connect with young people and show them what is possible.
“I love showing little kids who have no legs that it’s just a challenge,” Rudy says. “I always tell them that it’s all about your attitude and how you go about your life. In reality, a negative attitude is the real disability.”
When Jay, a young kid in San Diego, was told he would never walk or run again, Jay’s mother brought Rudy’s appearance on The Oprah Show to their doctor in the hopes of finding a similar outcome for her son. In an amazing coincidence, Jay’s doctor, Peter Davidson, was the brother of the doctor who had helped Rudy years before.
“Rudy was essentially able to be a role model for not only Jay, but for the whole family,” Babbitt says. “It becomes a situation in which a parent says, ‘If this kid can walk, then so can mine.’ That changes a family unit forever.”
And Rudy’s long-distance influence on Jay is by no means an isolated incident. There’s also ten-year-old Jimmy, who sat in line with his dad for Rudy’s autograph. After learning that Jimmy had spina bifida and had been using his wheelchair for just about a month, Rudy signed the young man’s poster: “Jimmy, look forward to seeing you at the Paralympics in eight years. Rudy.”
There’s also Cameron, who at age seven upgraded to the same prosthetic running legs that Rudy uses. Cameron had received them as a birthday present from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which Rudy represents.
And there’s Cody, an eight-year-old double amputee from Dallas, who aspires to be active just like Rudy. A few weeks after the Arizona Ironman, Rudy flew to Dallas to hang out with Cody and his mother. Rudy, who has now known Cody for four years, says he could always tell that his young protégé would do big things because of his positive attitude. “I like to think people like Cody are the future, not just of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, but of changing perceptions,” Rudy says.
Broading his sphere of influence and inspiration, Rudy was the first double above-knee amputee to participate in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, an event that serves as a fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. This year, nearly a dozen above-knee amputees participated in the event.
In spite of his achievements, Rudy humbly refuses to call himself a role model—that’s for others to determine, he says. But while he keeps pushing his body to achieve higher and higher physical goals, others continue to be motivated to follow in his example, clapping and cheering all the way.
“It’s one thing to achieve success, but it’s a whole different thing to help others achieve success,” Babbitt says. “And Rudy does that.”
by Josh Pate
Ironman Rudy Garcia-Tolson – www.facebook.com