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A Swimmer’s Long, Winding Lane Back to the Paralympics

“Unfortunately, there are always more athletes than there are slots,” Popovich said.

Then, at a spring competition in Texas, Garcia-Tolson showed that he was on the verge of once again being among the best in the country. Within days of the meet, he got a call from the national team. They had found a slot for him to be reclassified. Then came the bad news: The evaluation was in São Paulo.

He didn’t give it a second thought. Twelve days later, he boarded a flight to Brazil.

Making the U.S. team in para-swimming is much different from making the Olympic swim team. For the Olympic team, as long as swimmers finish first or second in their race, they make the team.

In para-swimming, world rankings and performances in the most recent world championship meet determine how many slots each country receives. The U.S. team has just 10 slots for men this year. U.S. coaches use a mathematical formula that allows them to compare the times swimmers achieve in different events to select the 10 swimmers who give the team the best chance of winning medals at the Paralympics.

Garcia-Tolson headed to Minneapolis last week for the trials, knowing the times he needed to achieve in each of his races — the 50-meter butterfly, the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter individual medley, which requires him to swim 50 meters of each of the four main swimming strokes — to make the top 10.

In four races over two days, he missed his target times in the 50-meter butterfly and the 100-meter breaststroke by more than a second. He was in 11th place.

On Saturday, he had two shots to beat 2 minutes 42 seconds in the 200-meter individual medley. In the morning, he felt sluggish in the second half of the heat. When he touched the wall, he saw on the board what he already knew. He was a second short and remained stuck in 11th place.

The evening brought one last chance. He hit the water determined to leave everything in the pool. When he touched the wall 200 meters later, he looked up and saw three numbers on the board — 2:41. He had made the top 10, and now plans to swim all three events in Tokyo.

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