CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Team USA swimmer Roy Perkins Jr. got a taste of Paralympic gold eight years ago — and now he’s hungry for more.
That, in large part, is what motivates the 26-year-old Perkins during this weekend’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, being held at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center in Charlotte.
The goal: To earn a spot on the U.S. team for the 2016 Paralympic Games, being held in Rio de Janeiro in early September.
“That’s been like the main thing — almost everything that drives me the last four years,” said Perkins, of Del Mar, California.
“It seems like almost another lifetime, winning gold in Beijing. It feels like so long ago. It still counts, but swimming is kinda like a ‘what have you done lately?’ kind of sport. I want to get back on top again.”
Being at or near the top of the swimming world has been commonplace for Perkins — who was born without hands or feet — since he took up the sport under coach Don Watkinds’ tutelage 13 years ago.
Perkins is ranked No. 1 in the world in the S5 men’s 50-meter butterfly and holds top-10 rankings in four other events — No. 2 in the S5 men’s 100-meter freestyle, No. 4 in the SB4 men’s 50-meter breaststroke, No. 5 in the S5 men’s 50-meter freestyle and No. 7 in the S5 men’s 200-meter freestyle. He also holds nearly every U.S. record in the S5 and SM5 divisions, save for the backstroke.
“He started off pretty quick, and has just gotten quicker,” Watkinds said. “You’ve got to want to do this, to put in the time, to put in the work — the right kind of work — and then get to know what your body does. He’s had a lot of physical problems, but we work around everything.”
But where Perkins excels is in the majors.
Perkins has competed in the Paralympic Games twice — in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London — bringing home six medals. That includes his only gold medal, in the S5 men’s 50-meter butterfly in 2008.
Perkins also has two silver medals, both from the 2012 Games, in the S5 men’s 100-meter freestyle and S5 men’s 50-meter butterfly. He also has three bronze medals — two from 2012, in the S5 men’s 50-meter freestyle and S5 men’s 200-meter freestyle; and one from 2008, in the S5 men’s 100-meter freestyle. Plus, he’s taken the gold twice in the S5 men’s 50-meter butterfly at the IPC World Championships (in 2006 and 2013).
“He’s a big-meet swimmer,” Watkinds said. “But he also swims the local meets, putting in the work and setting the times. He’s improving and learning something about the race every time.
“In turn, he’s letting the local community watch him, and dragging more people into the sport. We’ve got some swimmers competing here that watched him swim and decided they wanted to do it.”
Said Perkins: “It’s not really a conscious thing, because I try to push whenever I can. In practice, I’m a very fast swimmer. I think a lot of it comes from being able to do that regularly in practice, being able to turn on the speed.”
Perkins has also developed a rivalry of sorts with Brazil’s Daniel Dias, the IPC’s top-ranked swimmer in the S5 men’s 50- and 200-meter freestyle and S5 men’s 50-meter backstroke, and No. 3 in the S5 men’s 50-meter butterfly.
“That really drives me a lot, especially since his country is hosting the Paralympics this year,” Perkins said. “I know it’s a huge deal for him, which makes it a huge deal for me.
“Winning gold in Rio would be a much bigger deal (than winning in Beijing). I’m swimming a lot faster, and the competition is a lot faster. It’s going to be a lot harder to win the gold this time around.”
Perkins recorded his third event win in two days Friday, turning in the low time in the multi-class men’s 50-meter butterfly. He won the event in 35.23 seconds, more than a quarter-second better than his preliminary round time Friday morning.
“I’m pretty happy with that,” said Perkins, who swam a 35.50 in the preliminaries. “That’s a good time.”
Perkins, who won the S5 men’s 200-meter freestyle and SB4 men’s 100-meter breaststroke finals on Thursday, can add the S5 men’s 100-meter freestyle title to his résumé Saturday, the final day of the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials.
But Perkins admits he’s already looking ahead to Rio.
“I’m pretty much ready,” he said. “If it was next week, I’d be ready. I’ve put in the work; now I’m ready to go.”
Bill Kiser is a sportswriter based in North Carolina. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.