And a Child Shall Lead Them

November 18, 2002

He is a good student and a better athlete, but let's face it:
14-year-old Rudy Garcia-Tolson isn't perfect. The truth is, he
could be much neater. Look at the corner of his living room in
Bloomington, Calif., 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It is a jumble
of prosthetic legs, a veritable limboree. What happens is, the
kid gets home from swim practice and is so eager to ditch his
legs and hop on his skateboard that he doesn't take the time to
neatly store the prostheses. So they end up in a tangle on the
carpet: running legs atop biking legs--the latter hinged at the
knee and fitted with shoes that click into his pedals--with a
couple of sets of stubbies thrown in.

You know, stubbies. For just walking around or for paintball.
"I've been paintballing for three years," says Rudy, a double
amputee. Did his friends take it easy on him at first? "They
did," he says with sly smile. "They'd go, 'Aw, he sucks.' Then I
capped a few of 'em."

Rudy was born with pterygium syndrome. In addition to leaving him
with a raft of cruel but lesser abnormalities--a clubfoot, a
cleft lip and palate, webbing between his fingers--the rare
genetic condition caused excess skin to grow between his legs,
leaving him unable to walk. If we amputate at the knee, doctors
told him, you could walk with the help of prostheses. It was his
call, says his mother, Sandra. Do it, said Rudy. He was five.

In losing those superfluous parts of himself, Rudy was made
whole, his destiny clarified. He took up swimming at six and won
43 ribbons and 14 medals in two years. At nine he became the
youngest athlete ever to win a medal at the USA Swimming National
Disability Championships. By then he had branched out. With
prostheses donated by Ossur USA, the company whose legs now cover
half the family's living room, Rudy was also running for medals.
At 10 he became the youngest bilateral amputee to complete a
triathlon. With a sweet and slightly crooked smile belying his
iron will, he has laid waste the record books in both swimming
and running events for the disabled. He holds national
records--there are no age groups--in the 400-, 800-, 1,500-and
5,000-meter runs. Last year he ran a half-marathon in two hours
and 22 minutes, another national record.

At the San Diego Triathlon Challenge on Nov. 2 he completed the
1.2-mile swim in 26:30, then "walked" with his arms across a
grass field to the transition area, where he tagged his friend
Robin Williams, who then set out on the bike. (Props to Mork for
covering the 56-mile leg in less than three hours.)

Five days earlier Rudy had been on the Nike campus in Beaverton,
Ore., to receive the Casey Martin Award, given annually by the
company to an athlete who excels in his or her sport "despite
physical challenges." After attributing to Rudy "courage beyond
words," Martin said, "I'd like someone else to present this
award." Onto the stage bounded Williams, who had taken a
cross-country flight from New York City to be there for his young
friend.

It was fitting that Rudy was honored in the Tiger Woods
Auditorium. Just as Woods has been a pioneer in opening golf to
minority participants, Rudy is changing how we think of
challenged athletes. In 2001, when he showed up to compete in his
first disabled track event, he learned that there was no
classification for him. No double amputee had ever tried to race
against single-leg amputees. The conventional wisdom among most
doctors, says Sandra, is that "doubles shouldn't be running, they
should be in wheelchairs. But Rudy is changing the way people
look at double amputees."

"He has already done wonders for challenged athletes, and he's
just a kid," says Paul Martin, one of the world's top disabled
athletes. "I look forward to the day he kicks my butt in
triathlon. He already kicks it in the water."

It's a big job, being an ambassador for the disabled, but Rudy is
up to it. He is a spokesperson for the Challenged Athletes
Foundation and was one of three featured speakers at the opening
ceremonies of last winter's Paralympics in Salt Lake City. He is
the youngest member of the U.S. team that will go to Argentina
next month for the IPC Swimming World Championships. He just got
a handsome new set of red-white-and-blue stubbies for the
occasion. When a visitor asked to check one out, Rudy tossed it
across the room. As it bounced on the carpet, a rubber sleeve
popped out of it.

"Rudy, careful!" said his mother. "If that breaks, you'll have
about two days to get a new one."

Just what they need around here. More legs.

The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the Dec. 16 issue.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT OLIVER/CHALLENGED ATHLETES FOUNDATION Triathlon Trio Rudy (right) with fellow racer Roderick Sewell (left) and relay mate Williams.

"Rudy," says his mother, "is changing the way people look at
double amputees."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)