Powerhouse in the Pool: Swimmer Roy Perkins
China Photos/Getty Images Sport
By Sam Scott
Two weeks after 41 Stanford Olympians return home from London, one student-athlete will fly into the city, ready for his shot at gold. Born without hands or feet, Roy Perkins will compete in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events, 50-meter backstroke and 50-meter butterfly at the 2012 Paralympics. He comes to the Games a powerhouse: In Beijing he won his category’s gold in the 50-meter butterfly as well as bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. It’s difficult to believe that Perkins, ’13, was once terrified of putting his face in the water and didn’t learn to swim until he was 12. With coaching—and parents who always insisted he try—Perkins quickly adapted to his new environment, completing a 1.2-mile ocean swim in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge just months after his first lap.
Stanford caught up with Perkins before he headed to London, where the Earth Systems major will test his reputation for pulling out the big performance when it matters most.
I read that your parents had a rule: You had to try a sport at least once before you said you couldn’t do it. Before swimming, what sports did you play? How serious were you about them?
I played soccer on a club team from about age 6 to 12 and basketball for one year. Obviously being that young it was not really serious but it was a lot of fun. I also ice skated a lot until I moved from Washington, D.C., to San Diego when I was 12. Then I started swimming and focusing on that, and since then I only play other sports casually (mostly basketball).
What led you to swimming? How comfortable were you in the water at first?
I didn't learn to swim until age 12. It didn't take too long [to feel comfortable]. I had a really good swim instructor so I was comfortable after a couple lessons. The things that took longer to get comfortable with were dives and flip turns, which are specific to swimming as a sport rather than as a simple skill, and every swimmer goes through that. About a year later I met my current coach and started swimming several days a week and doing some meets. My second meet ever was Paralympic Trials in 2004, which is pretty intimidating for somebody who has been swimming less than two years and is still afraid of diving off starting blocks. I broke a bunch of American records, which at that point were not set at a very high standard and I wasn't fast enough to compete internationally, but it still encouraged me.
What made you love it?
For a long time I kept swimming because I was good at it and knew I had a future in it, and it gave me something to do every day. I honestly wouldn't say I “loved” swimming until the Beijing Paralympics, when I really started to embrace competing internationally rather than being overwhelmed by it. I also didn’t really “love” training until the last year or so, but now I enjoy putting in the work every day. So I’m still kind of evolving with regards to my approach and feelings about the sport even though I’ve been swimming for eight years now.
You’ve enjoyed steady success in the pool ever since, including winning gold and bronze in Beijing and four medals at the World Championships in 2010. What are you most proud of? Why?
Nothing tops the gold because it was at the most important meet and I proved I was the best in the world. My performance at World Championships meant a lot though, even though I took silver in butterfly, because I was able to medal in all three freestyle events I swam after winning only bronze in Beijing. I work just as much or more on freestyle as I do on butterfly, so it was nice to see that translate to beating almost everybody in a big international meet, and hopefully I will do the same in London.
What is your strength as a swimmer and as a competitor?
I have always been able to swim my best at the most important meets. Often times I am injured or have a setback leading up to (or even during) them but I push through it and still perform well. I'm looking forward to going into London under hopefully perfect conditions and being absolutely confident that I will be at my best, rather than having the stress of needing to overcome something that could negatively affect me.
Watch a 2008 video about Perkins.
Para-athletes don’t automatically have the typical option of playing on intercollegiate teams. How do you train while at Stanford? Does this make it harder to balance school and sport?
It depends on the school and how well the athlete is able to keep up. I have some friends on the [U.S.] Paralympic team who swim for Division III schools, but I decided it would be best for me to find someplace to train at my own pace—both in the pool and out—and where I could have a lot of say in the kind of training I do. While at Stanford, I swim with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics coached by Scott Shea. It’s an age group team, which is the type of team I train with at home, and a pretty small group. It’s very laid back and Scott is understanding about the training needs I have and the fact that school is a priority, but the workouts are great and challenging. It’s pretty hard to train the way I need to and also do well in school, which is why I took the past two quarters off to come home and train.
How do you get ready on race day? What rituals and routines do you have?
From the moment I wake up I start thinking about swimming fast and putting myself in the right mindset. The biggest difficulty is actually getting my body to wake up, and every swimmer deals with that by eating a good breakfast and getting a long warm-up at the pool. My warm-up is the most important and consistent routine and it sets the tone for the day of swimming. Sometimes I listen to music on the way to the pool or between the main warm-up and the start of the meet, but as my race approaches it is too distracting.
How do you view the accomplishments of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee sprinter who made news when he competed in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes? A triumph for paralympians? Or a singular case that’s not really relevant on a wider scale?
The exposure is great and it has drawn a lot of attention to the Paralympics. I don't see it becoming a huge trend, mainly because of how difficult it is to make the Olympics to begin with; the likelihood of somebody who has to overcome a disability on top of that [qualifying] is pretty rare. Whether or not it is fair for him to compete is really up to the governing body of track and field. Regardless of how they treat amputee runners going forward, it has been a positive story for disabled sports.
What are you plans post-London, athletically and personally?
I’ll be back at school about a week-and-a-half after I return from London, and my classes will be my priority. I’ll get in the pool a few days a week and probably start training more seriously again in the winter. I'm planning on swimming through at least the Rio games so I will mess around a bit doing some other things this fall but then it’s back to business.
Do you have a life philosophy?
I don’t really have any specific philosophy I go by, I just kind of go about my business. My attitude and enjoyment of swimming has changed over time, so the way I approach it depends on what kind of competitions are coming up and what my short-term and long-term goals are. Right now I have a laser focus on London so everything I do in and out of the pool is all about being at my best starting August 30.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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Data is from the past two weeks.