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 out underwear and a Sharpie.
Five years before winning bronze in men’s kata at the Tokyo Games, Torres, 18, got a call from his sensei, Robert Young of Goju-Ryu Miami Kenseikan. Young told Torres that karate was added to the Olympic program for 2020.
However, karate would not be featured at the Paris 2024 Olympics, so Torres had to spend the next four years working to qualify. The native of Hialeah, Florida assured his sensei that he would make it happen. Torres hung up and walked to the bathroom.
“Whatever underwear I was wearing, I took them off,” Torres said. “With a sharpie I wrote, ‘Olympics 2020! And I said, ‘I’m going to bring them to every event, every loss, everything. I will take it with me.
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Step aside, “The Travel Pants Sorority.” For Torres, it was travel underwear. When Torres competed internationally to move up the world rankings and qualify for the Olympics, the underwear was stowed away in his suitcase.
The words scrawled in the faded permanent marker reminded him of his goal.
“For competitions I only wear them on competition day,” Torres said. “And if I compete twice, oh that sucks. But I will wear them twice.
The Olympics were no different. Torres wore them not once – but twice – on the day he won bronze, first in the morning in the men’s kata ranking event and later in the bronze medal bout. To earn the medal, Torres scored 0.38 more points than his opponent, Antonio Jose Diaz Fernandez of Venezuela, with a total of 26.72.
Longtime Torres model Diaz Fernandez holds the record for most World Karate Championship medals with eight in total.
“I did my best and I feel like my opponent, he’s my inspiration,” Torres said. “He has been my inspiration for more years than I can count. I feel like we both did our best on the biggest stage in the world of karate.
Halfway across the world in Hialeah, Torres’ Cuban-American family got up early in the morning to watch their son make history. His mother, Andrea, his father, Ariel Sr., and his older sister, Yusleykys, have supported him throughout his karate career since he started at the age of 6.
“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 mostly Cubans there. And I’m sure at 6 am they’re like… ”
Torres paused, then made a few noises mimicking the thud of a subwoofer.
“… They are up. They were crazy. They are very happy. I’m sure everyone is happy. I can’t wait to get home. I feel like there is going to be a parade or something. “
Money for competitions was not easily found for Torres and his family. If Torres wanted to be seen as a professional athlete in his discipline, he had to be ranked among the top 12 karatekas in the world. It required traveling to international competitions every two weeks out of one’s own pocket.
To help finance his travels, Torres taught private lessons. The prize money he won in competitions would go to his family and travel expenses. When Torres won the 2019 Senior Pan American Championship, he soared in the world rankings to No.10. Then that all changed.
“It was like, hey, Ariel,” Torres said. “Your next game is paid. Hey, Ariel, your next event is paid for. Hey, Ariel, you have an allowance. I was like, mum, dad, we don’t have to struggle anymore. Because, listen, we’re gonna have this now.
Torres looked to earn his place in the Olympics during the 2021 Karate qualifying tournament in June. In the final round robin, he had to finish in the top three of four athletes to clinch a spot. Torres won the entire competition and stepped onto the podium with a ticket to Tokyo.
Almost two months later at Nippon Budokan, Torres delivered the kata performance of a lifetime in the bronze medal fight. With his third place finish, Torres won $ 15,000 as well as an Olympic bronze medal. He won’t keep a dime of the money. Instead, he will give his earnings to his parents.
“Thank goodness I don’t need it now,” Torres said. “I’m in a good position, fortunately. So I told them, here, have it all, please. I wish I could give you more, but that’s what I can do now. I will continue to fight for more one way or another.
When Torres returns home, he is retiring from the “Olympics 2020!” ” underwear. Maybe he will frame them, he said. But he knows they achieved their goal, holding him accountable as he worked to make his dream come true.
Now he has a bronze medal and a gift for his family to commemorate his efforts.
“This medal will change my life forever,” Torres said. “So not just for my country, for American karate, but for my family and everyone at home. The whole community. It’s for them because I wouldn’t be here without them.