It’s common for kids to dream big. Matthew Torres was 7 years old in 2008 when Michael Phelps was sweeping up gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, and he told his parents that he was going to do the same thing one day. He was unfazed by the fact that he didn’t know how to swim.
What’s more, Torres was born without the lower half of his right leg and is missing fingers on each hand as a result of a prenatal condition. Yet none of that has held him back.
Eleven years after announcing his goal, Torres took gold in both the 400-meter S8/S9 freestyle and the 100-meter S8 backstroke at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. Two years later, in August 2021, he competed in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo and won bronze in the men’s 400-meter S8 freestyle. (S8 and S9 refer to levels of disability.)
Just this past December, Torres set a new world record in the men’s 1,500-meter S8 freestyle at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships in Greensboro, N.C. He obliterated the previous record — set in 2020 — by half a minute and was named Swimmer of the Meet.
Torres, now a finance major and Division I swimmer at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said, “That [record] was something I’ve actually had my eye on doing for a few years now.”
But such goals, he added, wouldn’t be possible without the support of his parents. “At different points in my life,” he said, “it didn’t matter what I was aiming for and what my goals were; they were always there to support me 100 percent.”
He also recognizes that his talent and achievements are ultimately a gift from above.
“The things that I do in the swimming pool should be credited to the glory of God,” said Torres, who joined the Knights of Columbus last June. “Everything that I’ve accomplished so far is because God has allowed me to. Without him, none of this is possible.”
‘FREEDOM IN THE WATER’
Matthew Torres grew up in Ansonia, Conn., where his family are active parishioners at Holy Rosary Church and his father, Gilberto, is a past grand knight of Holy Rosary Council 10537.
His disabilities stem from amniotic band syndrome, a condition in which fibrous bands of the amniotic sac get tangled around a developing fetus. In Matthew’s case, the bands got wrapped around his right leg and some of his fingers.
Gilberto and his wife, Martha, were not aware of the condition until Matthew’s birth, which was about three months premature; prenatal tests had not indicated anything was wrong.
Gilberto, who was standing next to Martha during the delivery, recalled, “When he was born, he tipped his head and locked his eyes with mine; I was the very first human being he looked at. We bonded right then and there.”
Matthew required immediate medical attention, including a couple of surgeries.
“But when he finally came home in June, it was wonderful,” Gilberto said. “Did it matter to me that he had physical issues? Absolutely not. He’s my son, and I love him no matter what. Over the years, we’ve learned as much as he has how to overcome and how to compensate for these differences.”
Even before he received his first prosthetic leg, at 18 months, Matthew was crawling so fast that it was a challenge to keep up with him. As a young child, he tried out sports such as baseball and soccer, in spite of the difficulties they posed. He even organized soccer lessons for other kids with special needs. But everything changed when he started swimming.
“I felt freedom in the water,” he recalled. “I was able to control my movements better compared to land sports.”
Within a year, Matthew was competing for his local YMCA team, and he soon advanced to the National Junior Disability Championships.
“My mom and dad found different teams for me to work with and coaches that I could start learning from,” he said.“When I initially started out, obviously everyone else was just swimming laps around me. But my mother would tell me, ‘Don’t worry about them. Just focus on yourself, beating your own times and getting faster.’”
It was advice coming from experience: Martha Torres had been an accomplished swimmer in her native Colombia.
“She told me that eventually I could race against everyone else with two legs,” Matthew said. “That kind of motivation and support was the type that I got all the time from my parents — and I still do to this day.”
Gilberto, whose parents moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico before he was born, has been a particularly important role model.
“He’s always pushed me to be a better person. He’s always encouraged me to stick to my faith, stick to building a good relationship with God,” Matthew said. “He’s also made sure that I stay responsible, motivated and dedicated to whatever I’m doing.”
It was natural, then, for Matthew to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Knight for 20 years, and join Holy Rosary Council 10537 last summer.
“His being a grand knight and an officer within the council certainly led me to wanting to join,” Matthew affrmed. “My father has had a very positive and large influence on my life.”
GRIT AND GRACE
Torres has never felt sorry for himself because of his disabilities. To the contrary, he views his physical deficiencies as a God-given opportunity.
“Personally, having a disability has really become a part of who I am. God made me this way, and I’ve embraced it, turning that into becoming a professional swimmer,” he explained. “It’s hard to say, would I even be representing Team USA if I had been a normal guy? Would I be a Division I collegiate swimmer? For all we know, I may not have been a swimmer at all.”
That’s not to say Torres hasn’t done his part, of course. Aside from spending long hours in both the pool and the weight room, building up his strength and stamina and honing his talent, he regularly analyzes his performance to figure out what he needs to do to improve.
“He works really hard,” said Anthony Bruno, head coach of the swimming and diving programs at Fairfield University. “He’s a jokester, which I enjoy, but he’s also focused; he’s always thinking about the next meet: ‘How can I get better?’ He’s a very disciplined person. ”
It’s a quality that crosses over into other aspects of Torres’ young life. His father explained, “We’ve seen that attitude, that strength, stay with him. When he’s in school, he’s pushing hard and he brings home good grades. And we’ve seen it time and time again when he’s in the pool, that drive inside of him — he doesn’t know how to quit.”
Torres is looking forward to competing in the World Championships in Portugal this coming June and the 2024 Paralympics in France.
“We both think he can do something pretty special in Paris,” Coach Bruno said.
Torres has already done something special at Fairfield, where he is one of the school’s first Para swimmers and, according to Bruno, has raised awareness of Para swimming significantly.
“I certainly hope that in the future, if not already, I’ve inspired someone,” Torres said. “Maybe it would be starting their own swimming career, or just reaching their own personal life goals.”
This attitude of wanting to help others is a primary reason why he joined the Order.
“I’m a Knight of Columbus because I’ve always been someone who wants to give back to the community,” Torres said. “Because I’m a full-time college student and an athlete, my council involvement is a bit limited. In recent months, I helped out delivering Thanksgiving dinners as well as Christmas dinners, a beautiful council project showing the brotherly love we all share in Christ through our faith.”
Torres is also thankful for the support he’s received from his brother Knights, who have periodically helped his family cover travel expenses to international competitions.
“The Knights have been a big support as far as my swimming career has gone,” he said. “When they welcomed me back from the Paralympics in Tokyo, everyone congratulated me. I’m really grateful and appreciative that they’re looking out for me.”
Members of Council 10537 will no doubt be there to welcome Torres back from Portugal and Paris as well. Until then, his desire to win gold and glorify God drives him on.
“I think the motivation for me to keep pushing through the practices, day in and day out, comes from the long-term goal I’ve always had of being a Paralympic gold medalist and a world record holder in the 400,” Torres said. “I’m still chasing those dreams.”
JOHN BURGER writes for Aleteia.org and is a member of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Council 16253 in New Haven, Conn.
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