He Drove 3,000 Miles to Find a Pool and Ended Up in the Ocean

Along with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments through the rest of the year. Read Garcia-Tolson’s first installment here.

I can’t find water.”

This was not the problem Rudy Garcia-Tolson expected to confront when he drove 50 hours across the country from New York City to California searching for a place to begin his quest to make a fifth Paralympic Games.

Garcia-Tolson, 31, had spent the previous three months doing lots of push-ups and running in Brooklyn to regain a base of strength and endurance, as he made plans to end his three-year retirement from competition. Eventually though, a swimmer needs to swim.

In early June, Garcia-Tolson packed up everything he owned, rented a minivan and headed west, to his childhood home in Bloomington, Calif., where restrictions were lifting. After that he planned to move to Colorado Springs to start training seriously again, hopefully with the national team at the Olympic Training Center.

Other than completing the 2,750-mile drive to California and reconnecting with his family and his dog, nothing has worked out as planned.

His 2005 Subaru Baja, the car he planned to take to Colorado, might need a new transmission. His old coach, Nathan Manley, told him after four years away from competition, that he’s going to have to prove he deserves to train with the national team, especially with space limited at the Olympic Training Center.

“I understand that,” Garcia-Tolson said. “I’m no one special.”

Stuck in Southern California, he just needs to work out a few logistics. Public pools and a lake at a nearby park are closed for swimming, and unlike Katie Ledecky and other star American swimmers, Garcia-Tolson doesn’t have the juice to gain access to a swank, private pool, despite being a five-time Paralympic medalist, including two golds.

I started by catching some waves. I’ve always loved to surf. When I retire I want to move to Hawaii and surf every morning and every evening. I have to use my arms so much. It can take me 10 to 12 minutes of paddling just to get past the break.

It’s a hell of a workout and pretty intimidating, especially when the waves are big, because I don’t have the weight to duck dive, which is when a surfer pushes his board down under the waves as he goes out. Because I don’t have legs, I can’t generate enough force to get the whole board under the water. That’s fine with me though, because any upper body work I do now is going to benefit me when I get back in the pool.

I hadn’t been in the water since January, definitely the longest I’ve gone since I started swimming. It felt awesome. I was out there for two and a half or three hours as the sun was going down. I was very fatigued after I got home. I fell asleep right away. When I was out there I was thinking I am pretty out of shape, but that’s OK. I have felt like this before. Strength and endurance take time to build.

I’m heading to Colorado in mid-July. Things are opening there. I will have access to Y.M.C.A.s and pools at Life Time Fitness. That’s where I’m going to work to prove myself. I will get my own place and walk my dog every morning and every evening religiously. He’s a black Labrador and his name is Jimi, for one of my first national team coaches, who died. I take that man’s best friend stuff very seriously.

Every Olympic athlete knows it’s a four-year cycle and then you have to prove yourself again. I haven’t been swimming competitively since Rio. I completely understand I need to prove myself before I can ask to train at the Olympic Training Center. I am not looking for handouts or special treatment. I am approaching it like I am any athlete coming off the street. I am going to prove myself by swimming the times that show I can get my form back.

I’ve been looking through my training logs from 2007 and 2008, when I was a part of the resident para-swimming training team at the center, to get an idea of the kind of workouts I want to do. It was my first time away from home. I was 17 and 18, that was memorable, it was the top of the top to me. Now, because I am older and building back up, I am going to do one training session a day for three months, before I bump it up to two. Right now, because I haven’t been training, I know I am injury prone.

Drills are the core of the competitive workout. We might spend half the time working on drills, swimming with paddles, doing kicking drills, swimming with a monofin or a pull buoy, or doing a catch-up drill in freestyle, so you tap your hands together before every stroke. It works wonders in terms of timing.

Most of my strokes are in a good place. My strokes are my pride. I’m focused on the 200 individual medley, and the 100 breast stroke. I’m going to make one change with my freestyle, though. Instead of going into the water right in front of my head, my hand is going to start going in as far out as I can reach. I will need to use my body more and have my hips engaging. The idea is to catch the water sooner so I can generate more momentum.

I just can’t wait to get going. There is absolutely nothing better than that feeling of being done with a hard workout, feeling tired but knowing that you put in that work and you are going to see the benefits. The improvements might be small, especially at first, but they are very rewarding.

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