Lucky underwear and a family's sacrifice: The rise of an American karate medalist
Ariel Torres was a high school senior stuck in a journalism class when, on an unforgettable day in 2016, he got the news. Karate would be on the Tokyo 2020 program, and likely none thereafter. A little after 8 p.m., he narrowly outscored his idol, Venezuela’s Antonio Diaz, and won a medal that, he says, is “going to change our life, forever.” He raised his chin, and trembled with emotion, and pinched his hands to his face. He bear-hugged coaches. He broke down crying. And the underwear? “Yeah yeah yeah,” he said, still wearing them. “It's pretty nasty, I know. Sorry. “But, hey. Rituals.
TOKYO – For karateka Ariel Torres, the first American to win an Olympic medal in karate, the road to Tokyo started with a phone call, worn underwear and a Sharpie.
Five years before he took bronze in men’s kata at the Tokyo Games, 18-year-old Torres received a call from his sensei, Robert Young of Goju-Ryu Miami Kenseikan. Young told Torres that karate was being added to the Olympic program for 2020.
However, karate wouldn’t be featured at the 2024 Paris Olympics, so Torres needed to spend the next four years working toward qualification. The Cuba native assured his sensei that he’d make it happen. Torres hung up and went to the bathroom.
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“Whatever underwear I was wearing, I took them off,” Torres said. “With a sharpie, I wrote, 'Olympics 2020!' And I said, ‘I'll take these to every event, every loss, everything. I'll take it with me.’”
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Step aside, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." For Torres, it was all about the traveling underwear. When Torres competed internationally to move up in the world rankings and qualify for the Olympics, the underwear came tucked away in his suitcase.
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The words scrawled in faded permanent marker served as a reminder of his goal.
“For competitions, I only wear them on the day I compete,” Torres said. “And if I compete two times, oh, it sucks. But I'll wear them twice.”
The Olympics were no different. Torres wore them not once – but twice – on the day he took bronze, first in the morning during the men’s kata ranking round and later in the bronze medal bout. To earn the medal, Torres scored .38 of a point higher than his opponent, Antonio Jose Diaz Fernandez of Venezuela, with a total of 26.72.
Diaz Fernandez, Torres’ longtime role model, holds the record for most medals won at the World Karate Championship with eight total.
“I did the best I could, and I feel like my opponent, he's my inspiration,” Torres said. “He's been my inspiration for more years than I can count. I feel like we both did our best in the biggest stage in the world of karate.”
Half a world away in Hialeah, Torres’ Cuban American family was up in the early hours of the morning to watch their son make history. His mother, Andrea, father, Ariel Sr., and older sister, Yusleykys, have supported him throughout his karate career since he started at age 6.
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“They're probably going crazy right now,” Torres said. “And it's funny, it's my whole neighborhood. I live in Hialeah, it's a huge community with Cuban people there mostly. And I'm sure at 6 a.m., they're like ... ”
Torres paused, then made some noises imitating the thumping of a subwoofer.
"... They're up. They were crazy. They're very happy. I'm sure everyone's happy. I can't wait to go home. I feel like there's gonna be a parade or something.”
Money for competitions wasn’t easy for Torres and his family to come by. If Torres wanted to be considered a professional athlete in his discipline, he needed to be ranked as one of the top 12 karatekas in the world. That required flying to international competitions every two weeks out of his own pocket.
To help fund his travels, Torres taught private classes. The prize money he earned at competitions would go to his family and toward travel expenses. When Torres won the 2019 Sr. Pan American Championship, he skyrocketed into the global rankings at No. 10. Then, everything changed.
“It was like, hey, Ariel,” Torres said. “Your next match is paid for. Hey, Ariel, your next event is paid for. Hey, Ariel, you have a stipend. I was like, mom, dad, we don't have to struggle anymore. Cause, look, we're gonna have this now.”
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Torres sought to earn his spot at the Olympics at the Karate 2021 Qualification Tournament in June. In the final round-robin, he needed to finish in the top three of four athletes to nab a place. Torres won the whole competition and stood atop the podium with a ticket to Tokyo.
Nearly two months later at Nippon Budokan, Torres delivered the kata performance of a lifetime in the bronze medal bout. With his third-place finish, Torres earned $15,000 along with an Olympic bronze medal. He won’t keep a cent of the money. Instead, he’ll give his earnings to his parents.
“Thank God, I don't need it right now,” Torres said. “I'm in a good place, thankfully. So I told them, here, have it all, please. I wish I can give you more, but this is what I can do right now. I'll keep fighting for more somehow.”
When Torres returns home, he’s retiring the “2020 Olympics!” underwear. Maybe he’ll frame them, he said. But he knows they’ve served their purpose, holding him accountable as he worked to achieve his dream.
Now, he has a bronze medal and a gift for his family to commemorate his efforts.
“This medal's gonna change my life forever,” Torres said. “So not only for my country, for the USA karate, but for my family and everyone back home. The whole community. It's for them because I wouldn't be here without them.”
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August 6, 2021: Supporters cheer after Ryo Kiyuna of Japan won his men's kata gold medal bout for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
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August 6, 2021: Luigi Busa of Team Italy celebrates after defeating Rafael Aghayev of Team Azerbaijan during the Men's Karate Kumite -75kg Gold Medal Bout on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Nippon Budokan on August 06, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
August 6, 2021: Le•la Heurtault (L) of Team France competes against Merve Coban of Team Turkey during the Women's Karate Kumite -61kg Elimination Round contest on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Nippon Budokan on August 06, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
August 6, 2021: Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan, left, and Nurkanat Azhikanov of Kazakhstan compete in the men's kumite -75kg elimination round for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
August 6, 2021: Luigi Busa of Italy, left, and Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan compete during their men's kumite -75kg gold medal bout for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
August 6, 2021: Stanislav Horuna of Ukraine, left, and Luigi Busa of Italy compete in their men's kumite -75kg semifinal bout for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
August 6, 2021: Ken Nishimura of Japan, left, and Abdalla Abdelaziz of Egypt compete in the men's kumite -75kg elimination round for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
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August 6, 2021: Leila Heurtalt of France, left, and Merve Coban of Turkey compete in the women's kumite -61kg elimination round for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phone call, worn underwear, Sharpie: How Ariel Torres' historic Olympic medal quest in karate began
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