Matt Torres won six medals, including two golds, at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
Matthew Torres was just 7 years old when he watched Michael Phelps win a record eight gold medals at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, and, like lots of kids around the world, he decided right then and there that he wanted to swim just like him.
For Torres, however, the dream was a bit more layered than for other kids.
He wasn’t a swimmer at that point, at least not competitively.
Torres was also born with a condition called amniotic band syndrome, which resulted in him missing half his right leg, having deformities in both hands, as well as moderate hearing loss.
Watching Phelps, Torres was inspired by his drive and also saw a sport in which he, too, had a chance to succeed.
“It was just kind of like this instant spark as I was watching his races,” Torres said. “It was this motivation just to try and emulate that as best I could. It was something instant inside of me that wanted to do it. I always loved the water when I was little, and I always struggled with land sports so I guess from that perspective maybe that’s what pushed me in that direction a bit more, knowing I’d probably have a better chance of succeeding at swimming than at any other sport.”
Torres is now an 18-year-old freshman at Fairfield University, not far from where he grew up in Ansonia, Connecticut. He’s not only on the swim team there but is also an up-and-comer with the U.S. program with hopes of making his Paralympic debut in Tokyo in 2020. He’ll be competing in the National Para Swimming Championships this weekend in Lewisville, Texas.
Just 11 years ago he was a newcomer taking lessons at his local YMCA.
“I told my mom and dad that I wanted to start swimming and that I wanted to become a professional like Michael and they signed me up,” he said.
Torres progressed to the swim team there and after a few years found a club team because he wanted to train and compete year-round. He knew from the start, he said, that he’d have to put in all his effort if he wanted to achieve his goals. He also knew he’d made the right choice in sports.
“I’d tried out other sports before, briefly, just for fun,” he said. “Just playing games. But baseball, for example, I knew running around the bases wouldn’t be easy for me because running in general doesn’t fit well for me. Soccer, same kind of thing, then there’s keeping control of the ball. But when it comes to swimming, you don’t have that issue. The movements are natural for me.”
He didn’t get involved in Para swimming until 2010 when he participated in the National Junior Disability Championships in Chicago that he learned about through the adaptive swim team at his local hospital.
The plan for Tokyo started in 2016 while getting ready for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming ahead of the Rio Games. He knew he was a long shot to make that team, he said, but remembers it was there that Queenie Nichols, director of U.S. Paralympics Swimming, told him that 2020 was where he could break out.
“So from then on, that was my focus,” he said. “Even at the 2016 trials I was telling myself not to worry about it, not to pressure myself because 2016 was not going to be my year, but I knew I had 2020 coming up. I’ve just known since then that this is what I’ve been working for and I’m feeling like it could definitely become a reality as we get closer and closer.”
If there was any doubt that Torres was on track, it was eliminated when he made his Parapan American Games debut earlier this year and came home with four individual and two relay medals. He was the most decorated American male swimmer at the event.
The first medal was gold for his win in the S8 100-meter backstroke.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to win it. I remember being on the podium and tearing up with the national anthem because it was nothing I expected. It was a powerful moment for me.”
He’d later win the gold medal in the 400 freestyle, which is both his best and his favorite event, and set a Parapan American record plus a bronze medal in the 200 individual medley and the 100 free. He also won bronze medals in the medley relay and freestyle relay.
At nationals this weekend he’ll be competing in the 400 free, 100 back and 100 free, and is hoping to swim the 400 freestyle in four minutes, 30 seconds or better and match his Parapan times, if not finish a half second faster, in the other two events.
“Sometimes I’ll be at practice and just start thinking about Tokyo and how I’m not that far away from my fellow competitors who are in medal contention and it motivates me and I just try to push harder,” he said. “It gets me excited because I know it’s something I’m able to do. It’s not unrealistic to think maybe I can get a silver or maybe even gold next year, but we’ll see what happens. It’s just about putting in the effort every day.”