Ariel Torres competes during the Men’s Karate Kata Ranking Round at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 06, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — Ariel Torres is leaving Tokyo with something new: a historic bronze medal. But it was something old, he said, that played a memorable — and somewhat shocking — role in that win: his lucky underwear.
In 2016, Torres got the call that karate was being added to the Olympic program, along with four other sports. At the time, he was a senior in high school.
“My karate instructor called me and said karate is going to be in the Olympics, so buddy, you need to step up right now,” the 23-year-old remembered. “I was like, okay, I’ll make it. Don’t worry about it. It was probably the ignorance inside of me that didn’t know how vigorous the process to qualify would be.”
What he did next, he can remember as vividly as he does the details of that call. “I went to the bathroom. And the underwear that I was wearing, I took them off and with a sharpie I wrote, “Olympics 2020!” And I said I’ll wear these to every event, every loss, everything. And I’m wearing them right now,” he said, telling reporters in Tokyo after his win.
Only wearing them on the days he competed, Torres put them on for his first competition in Tokyo, which started early Friday morning at the historic Nippon Budokan. There he scored an impressive 26.40 with his first kata, a kururunfa, and high enough to move him on to the ranking rounds.
Earning a spot in the semis later that night, he went up against karate legend, Antonio Diaz — who holds a Guinness world record for most medals won at the world championships. Torres’ final kata, an anan dai earned him a score of 26.46 and the hardware to go with it — making him the U.S.’s first karate athlete to medal at an Olympic Games.
The money he will get for winning bronze — $15,000 from the USOPC — will go straight to his parents, he said, who moved him to the United States from Cuba when he was four.
Two years after immigrating, he started karate after a doctor suggested the sport to his mom as a way to channel some of his energy. Unable to afford a car, Torres would walk with his family the 15 minutes to and from the dojo. And when he wanted to go to his first out-of-state national championships at 11, it was his parents who helped him get there.
But their first answer was no.
“They said, no buddy, we don’t have the money,” Torres said. But as a family, they came up with the idea to make signs asking for donations to help them get to the competition in North Carolina from Florida.
The two-time USA Karate national champion remembered doing katas on busy street corners as a way to entice people to drop money into their buckets. Two weeks later they had the money. At that competition, he said, “I got first in kata, and first in kumite. My parents were like, see Ariel — don’t let money stop you. You find a way. That sacrifice will be the difference between you and other people.”
The new bronze medalist plans to continue his winning momentum in Uruguay at the end of October where he will compete in the Pan American championships.
He hopes his load will be heavy coming home with more hardware, but his luggage will be lighter getting there. His lucky underwear is officially retired. Something his future roommates will be thankful for.
“When I go to competitions, I hang them in my room,” Torres said about his ritual. “I feel bad for my roommates because they had to stare at them all day.”
Team USA Karate will close out their Olympic experience when Brian Irr competes in the kumite 75+ division tomorrow at 4 pm JST.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.