Rudy Garcia-Tolson is a true pioneer. A four-time Paralympian and an Ironman Triathlon finisher, he travels the world as a fierce competitor and motivational speaker, hanging out with A-list celebrities and appearing on Oprah. But before any of that started — the fans, sponsorships and international acclaim — there was just a determined kid and a local swimming pool.

Garcia-Tolson was born with a congenital condition called pterygium syndrome, which causes malformations in the limbs and a cleft palate. As a young child, he underwent 15 operations on his legs before deciding to move forward with a double amputation above the knee at age six. It was then that his dad encouraged him to try a sport. “My dad suggested swimming, a useful thing to know how to do in Southern California,” says Garcia-Tolson. “I agreed, and they took me to swimming lessons for kids with disabilities. I was really nervous, but after two months, I learned how to swim freestyle.”

He joined a local able-bodied swim team in San Bernardino, Calif., and was the only kid with a challenge. Six months later, he swam his very first meet and came in dead last in every event he entered.

“Everyone was cheering for me and telling me I did a good job, and I didn’t understand why,” he recalls. “I got last place! My competitive nature made me look at it like anyone else, so I decided I wanted to beat a kid with legs. I wanted to show them that I was more than just a participant — that I wanted to beat them.”

Another six months went by; he entered his second meet and touched the wall before one swimmer in the 50-meter freestyle event. “The kid looked at his friends and said, ‘A kid with no legs beat me!’… And that’s when I knew [swimming was] what I wanted to do.”

The sport lit a competitive fire deep inside Garcia-Tolson. During his formative years, it was his savior. “I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to beat these kids with legs,” he explains. “When I was swimming, I was able to adjust fully with my arms. It gave me the confidence in the pool and in life in general, that when someone tells you that you can’t do something, you want to go out, work hard, and prove them wrong.”

Seeing gold

As with many kids across the country, when he was nine, Garcia-Tolson told his parents and coach that he wanted to compete in the 2004 Paralympics. “Every kid has a dream of going to the Olympics at some time or other, so they didn’t think anything of it,” he says. “I went to my first nationals when I was 10, and got an idea of what the U.S. Paralympics is all about. You learn that there are people just like you all around the world, training full-time as elite athletes. And that’s what I wanted to be.”

Garcia-Tolson wasted no time making his dream a reality. He spent two years living and training with able-bodied Olympians at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before his first Paralympic bid. At the age of 16, he won his first gold medal in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2004 Athens Paralympics (a world record for his SM7 classification). To date, it remains his proudest accomplishment. “Making that team was a blessing, and also being able to swim my first event on Day 1 and go faster than I’ve ever gone, was an amazing experience,” he explains.

Four years later, at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, he won his second gold in the 200IM, breaking his own SM7 record. He also won bronze in the 100m breaststroke (SB7).In 2012, he marked his third Paralympic appearance with yet another SB7 record-breaking race in his 200m IM heat, finishing with silver in the final race. The classification system that designates which physical challenges determine who athletes will race against can be a little tricky, causing both controversy and frustration for competitors.

There are eight types of physical challenges defined by the International Paralympic Committee, and swimming has its own numbered designation of competition classes from 1-10. “SM” stands for Swimming Medley, while “SB” stands for Swimming Breaststroke. The “7” class includes a variety of physically challenged athletes, meaning that depending on the event, Garcia-Tolson sometimes competes against swimmers with full use of their legs (which create 60 percent of the power) —but possibly an upper body limitation on one limb.

“I trust in the Paralympic movement, though,” says Garcia-Tolson, “and it’s still in early development. I have faith in the system, and sooner rather than later there will be changes.”

Beyond the pool

At age 10, Garcia-Tolson decided to take up triathlons — and in 2009, became the first bilateral amputee to complete an Ironman. Ever.

“I did my first tri with a mountain bike and training wheels, and I finished it with no help,” he says. “Growing up, I saw the Ironman in Hawaii on TV every year and thought about how crazy it was to push yourself that far and that long in those conditions. There’s no better challenge than competing in the Ironman. It’s a great way to show people that having a disability is just a challenge, and that the real disability is a negative attitude.”

After barely missing the time cut-off at the Kona Ironman in 2009, he completed the Arizona Ironman just weeks later in 16:06:27. He quickly made a new goal of finishing the race in 12 hours. “It will come; I just need to be patient,” Garcia-Tolson says. “It’s a very grueling training cycle. It’s a 90 percent mental thing and a 10 percent physical thing. The clocks come into play, the hours go by and you wonder why you’re doing it.”

His achievement of completing a full Ironman earned him a 2010 ESPY nomination.

Garcia-Tolson also competed in the 2013 World Championships for Track and Field this past summer, winning a silver medal in the long jump.

“It was fun to represent my country, compete against the best in the world and kind of make them nervous,” he says with a laugh. “For a double amputee, the tricky part is hitting the board at the right point — and the landing is kind of rough, but you make it work in the moment.”

Brave heart

Given his accomplishments, optimism and determination, it’s no surprise that Garcia-Tolson is a sought-after motivational speaker.

“I share how I’ve always been told by people that I can’t do this, and I can’t do that. I’ve been looked down on for what I don’t have. But it doesn’t matter what you don’t have; tough times don’t last, but tough people do. Never let people tell you that you can’t do something. Prove them wrong.”

Inside of that message is the reason why swimming has meant so much to Garcia-Tolson.

“[The sport] gave me the confidence to believe in myself, regardless of how people thought of me because of my legs,” he says. “It taught me regimen and discipline. Swimmers are the most mentally tough athletes in the world. Who wants to wake up at 5 a.m., jump into a cold pool, swim for two hours and look at a black line?

“Swimming is my first love, and my goal is to compete in the pool one last time in 2016,” he continues. “After Rio [de Janeiro], I will retire from competitive swimming. But I want to win one more. Then I’ll move on and see what happens.”

In the meantime, Garcia-Tolson will continue to be one reason why pools around the country have an increasing number of both challenged and able-bodied athletes. One of his favorite sayings sums up the exceptional man well: It’s not the size of the lion that matters; it’s the size of the lion’s heart.