You are here

2016 Challenged Athlete 
Roy Perkins Jr.

At the age of 13, Roy Perkins Jr. went to his first Paralympic Team Trials. He had been swimming for less than two years. “I wasn’t really intimidated,” said Perkins, now 26, a veteran of three Paralympic Games where he has taken home 10 medals, two of them gold, and tonight’s honoree for the 2016 Challenged Athlete of the Year. “It was all so new to me. I was just trying to get to the other end of the pool. The trials are pretty open. They try to get people in the door, but making the team is a different story. I didn’t want to make the team for Athens; I was making enough progress. I didn’t want to be embarrassed.”

Four years later, in the same University of Minnesota swim facility, Roy Perkins Jr. was no longer just another name. Now he was No. 1 in the world and the world record holder in the 50-meter butterfly in the S5 category. There are 10 categories in Paralympic swimming, from 1 indicating the most disabled to 10 the least. Perkins was born without hands and feet but with plenty of determination.

Now he was ready to represent the United States in Beijing.

“This time I expected to make the team,” said Perkins, who at the time was a senior—and a bit of a celebrity—at The Bishop’s School. “I just considered it a formality. Now I was looking forward to going. My parents were a little nervous, though.”

No need for concern, as Perkins won the gold in his best event, the 50-meter butterfly, as well as a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. “It was exactly as I thought it would be,” he said. “It was such a positive experience. But I knew I could go a lot faster.”

Although he won two silver and two bronze medals in London in 2012, he was beaten in the 50-meter butterfly by China’s He Shiwei. Perkins did beat his longtime rival, Daniel Dias of Brazil, who had taken away Perkins’ world record in 2010. Now Perkins could set his sights on gaining revenge, and not only besting Dias, but doing it in his best event in his own backyard, Rio de Janeiro. “He’s a big hero in his country,” Perkins said. “There were Olympic billboards everywhere and he was on most of them. It was a big deal. The night of the 50 butterfly, there were 6,000 or 8,000 fans there—it was packed. I was used to that, though.”

There’s no time for looking around during the 50-meter butterfly. Perkins had just one pool length between him and the gold. It was do or die.

He won by just two tenths of a second, in 35.04.

“It wasn’t my fastest time, but I did the best I could every single race,” said Perkins, a notoriously good big-meet swimmer. “That’s how swimming goes. You can’t be your fastest every race; you just try to do the best.”

Perkins added silver medals in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle and a bronze in the 50. Not that Dias was shattered—he won gold in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, plus the 50-meter backstroke. The only individual event he lost was the 50-meter butterfly, where he was third. That gave Dias at total of 14 Paralympic gold medals. Perkins beating him was like an able-bodied swimmer beating Michael Phelps.

Perkins might have had a bigger haul, according to his coach, Don Watkinds, who guides the WAVE swim team where Perkins trains when he’s home from school at Stanford. “Roy showed so much improvement in his other strokes, especially the breaststroke where he’d be an S4, that I believe he could have been in the finals there, maybe even medaled,” said Watkinds. “The backstroke, too.”

Not that Perkins is concerned about his medal haul. He’s taking some time off and keeping his options open for Tokyo in 2020. First he’s focusing on school, where he’s an Earth Science major. If that sounds difficult, he’s up to the challenge.

“I haven’t let my disability hold me back,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a good, natural stroke in the butterfly. I like to be pushed, so I compete in regular San Diego–Imperial US Swim meets. I’m just trying to get better.”