Amputee Rudy Garcia-Tolson takes being a 12-year-old as seriously as he races

Young triathlete Rudy Garcia-Tolson  Credit: Photo: Alex Kostich
Rudy Garcia-Tolson is no ordinary 12-year-old. Sure, he likes to hang out with his friends, enjoys skateboarding, and has recently dyed his hair platinum blonde in the first sign of mild adolescent rebellion.

But unlike most 12-year-olds, Rudy can run, swim and bike circles around anyone his own age (and for that matter, around most ordinary Joes twice or three times his age). In a country where obesity is practically an epidemic, particularly among pre-teen children, Rudy is a shining example of someone who is not content to sit in front of a TV or play video games as a chronic pastime.

In fact, it is tough to catch Rudy sitting still at all; armed with a never-ending dose of energy atypical even for a boy his age, he races regularly on the Southern California triathlon circuit. Rudy is just as determined, focused and competitive as the seasoned veteran athletes he competes against.

But there is one remaining detail that sets Rudy apart from even the most heroic and accomplished athletes that he considers his heroes. Rudy was born with several rare congenital birth defects, including the leg-crippling Pterygium Syndrome, a clubfoot, webbed fingers on both hands and a cleft lip and palate. After five years and 15 surgeries (some successful, some not), the preschooler made a decision that would alter the course of his life forever: He chose to have doctors amputate his legs rather than remain confined to a wheelchair.

It was a good thing, too, as the prospect of Rudy Garcia-Tolson being stuck in a wheelchair is about as easy to imagine as a cow flying over the moon. No matter where he goes or what he does, Rudy is not hampered, or even fazed, by the difficulties posed by his challenged-ness (using the term disabled or disability does not apply to Rudy, as there is virtually nothing this kid isnt able to do. And while on the subject, the term handicapped is equally misleading and inaccurate, if you ask him).

Recently I caught up with Rudy and his extended family of siblings, parents and support staff at a local triathlon east of Los Angeles. Truly, this little guy has an entourage that would probably rival that of any rock star, and rightly so. Where Rudy goes, inspiration follows. Its no secret that his charm, his attitude and his so-what approach to his very obvious adversities is infectious, disarming even the most casual bystanders.

Theres so much he wants to do, explains Sandy Tolson, his quiet-spoken mother. Skateboarding, snowboarding, skydiving...

She starts to laugh and shake her head as her son does donuts on a road bike nearby. Equipped with special cycling legs, Rudy is finished with his race but still eager to find an outlet for his undying energy. The prosthetics he is using are manufactured by an Icelandic company that has worked closely with Rudy to design prosthetics that work for him and hopefully, others as well.

Is he aware of what he can do for challenged athletes and the disabled community in general? I ask, upon hearing that Rudy has been going on public-speaking engagements and motivational seminars around the country.

No, says Sandy, her voice almost a whisper. No, not at all. Hes just a kid. He has no idea the influence he has on people, and the effect he can have by just being himself.

Indeed, as I watch the youngster spin on his bike and dismount easily to don a sweatshirt, I have to remind myself that, as ordinary as he seems and behaves, hes not an ordinary kid. In fact, it is his very ordinariness, his very typical 12-year-old-ness in spite of what some see as insurmountable handicaps, that makes him so special.

How is he in school?

Oh, says his mother, laughing, He knows he cant go to swim practice or to any of the speaking engagements he loves so much if his grades arent good. So he always has to do well in school, and then hes allowed to race and to travel.

Who writes his speeches, then, when hes speaking in public?" I wondered. "I mean, hes 12!

Oh, we all chip in, Sandy admits, The whole family will sit around the kitchen table and well come up with stuff. Its a team effort, although Id say 90 percent is his brother Richard.

Rudys motto and mantra, which he picked from a book given to him by his mother several years ago, reads A brave heart is a powerful weapon. Strong words to live by for a little guy whos still several years away from getting his drivers license (and rest assured, Rudy will find a way to get his license, and, judging from his athletic performances, probably a few speeding tickets to boot).

Rudy, come say hello to Mr. Alex! shouts Sandy, as her son zooms by on a bike, a blur of blonde hair and spinning wheels.

Obedient, Rudy speeds by, yelling Hello, Mr. Alex over his shoulder, then he's gone in a scrape of gravel and a cloud of dust.

Ricardo Garcia, Rudys father, ritually carts his family to various athletic events on the weekends. Although Rudy is the reason they pack up their company-sponsored SUV, emblazoned with Rudys likeness and the Challenged Athletes Foundation logo, his other siblings are also competitors while their parents supervise the production. With the Garcia-Tolsons, everything is a team effort.

Polite, humble, supportive and good-natured, the Garcia-Tolsons do not seem like a family that has faced one hardship after another. Having raised four children in a trailer home in Bloomington, Calif., and having to deal with the medical ailments of two of them (Rudy and his sister Renee), Sandy and Ricardo quietly forge ahead. Supporting their family and working tirelessly to gain corporate sponsorships that help offset travel and medical expenses, the Garcia-Tolsons have provided their children with the opportunities to do almost anything humanly possible, challenges and all.

In the last several years, Rudys list of sponsors has grown to include Powerbar, Ossur USA, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Loma Linda Prosthetics and Quintana Roo. Ossur, the company that creates prosthetic devices and depends on Rudy as its consultant and singular test-subject, gets limitless exposure and coverage due to its pint-sized, trailblazing star. The Challenged Athletes Foundation has also been integral to Rudys development as a spokesperson and idol for challenged athletes. Rudy is not just a great athlete anymore; he is becoming an institution.

Having been a dedicated swimmer in an athletic family myself, I had to wonder if perhaps all this pressure of being in the spotlight had taken its toll, as it so often does on the members of a goal-oriented family.

Does he ever resent the practices and the time commitment? I ask.

Sandy doesnt miss a beat: No, of course not. He doesnt, he loves it. We all love it. The races, the traveling, the opportunities, were so close as a family because of it, none of us would trade it for the world.

Then, sensing that my question may infer something deeper, she quickly adds: And I make sure Rudy has one weekend a month to just be a kid, you know, to see his friends from school, to skateboard, to shoot paintball, to do whatever else he wants to do. He needs that. All kids need that. So I plan ahead and let him do all the racing and the speaking that he wants, but I also make sure he has some time away from it. Once a month. At least.

Terry Martin, director of special promotions for PowerBar, is credited by many as having discovered Rudy and nurtured him into the triathlete and individual that he is today. An accomplished triathlete whose appearance belies his 50 some-odd years, Martin is well-matched with his star protege in the high-energy department.

"Rudy is just incredible," Martin said. "He honestly believes there is nothing in life he can't do and he proves it 99 percent of time! He possesses an uncanny ability to instantly adapt his 'challenge' to the physical demands of any sport he attempts.

"In the past five years I've seen him do it all, from swimming to full triathlons, skateboarding, basketball, football, soccer and serious running! Only 12 years old, he recently set a personal running best of 20:08 for 5K ... that's 6:30 pace!

In phenomenal shape, the only time Martin ever seems short of breath is when he talks about Rudy and whats in store.

Although Rudy's lifetime goal is to compete for the USA in swimming at the 2004 Paralympics it wouldn't surprise me if he's asked to pack some other gear next to his swimsuit and goggles! He is just amazing.

Rudy trains five times a week, swimming only. A member of Riverside Aquatics, a well-known age-group team of swimmers ranging from 5 to 18, Rudy may look different crouched on the side of the pool beside his teammates, but in the pool its a different story.

At age 9 he was the youngest challenged athlete to ever qualify and medal at the Disabled Swim Nationals. At 11, he set the national record in the 200-meter breaststroke in his division (bear in mind that breaststroke is primarily powered by the kick, so in Rudys case his speed is entirely made up of his upper body, which only serves to make his record more astounding).

Running and biking is approached more casually in Rudys training routine. Partially because of logistics (living in Bloomington it is difficult to find roads and trails safe enough for Rudy) but also because of swimming and academic priorities, the other two sports in his three-sport background take a back seat until race day.

Accompanied by his father Ricardo and any other well-wishers who can keep up, Rudy attacks his events with gusto and a quiet determination, politely acknowledging any cheers that he elicits from spectators or fellow competitors.

At the race where I met Rudy, I noticed a scrape on his shoulder that seemed fresh and raw.

Did you have a spill on the bike part of the race? I ask, thinking his response would make for an interesting tale of life on the road for a challenged athlete.

Nah, I was skateboarding yesterday. Got banged up.

The response is typical of a 12-year-old a running, cycling, swimming, and yes, even skateboarding, double-amputee. Sometimes being so typical is part of the miracle that is Rudy Garcia-Tolson.

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