Karate Star Ariel Torres Reflects on Sacrifices His Family Made to Help Him Become Olympic Hopeful
"I just want to make my community, my family, everyone that's done something or even said something positive to me, proud," Ariel Torres tells PEOPLE
The journey to the Tokyo Games has been a lengthy one for all athletes, but the road has been even more challenging for Ariel Torres.
Torres, now 23, was just 6 years old — and recent immigrant to the U.S. from Cuba — when he first got started in the martial arts at the suggestion of his pediatrician. "The doctor said to my mom, 'Hey, Ariel is hyperactive. I recommend you put him in a sport that teaches him discipline, how to hold his energy. Because there's a lot of energy,' " recounts Torres, who is a member of Got Milk?'s Team Milk, to PEOPLE.
Seventeen years later, Torres — a two-time USA Karate national champion — is just a few months away from potentially competing at the Summer Olympics.
"I just want to make my community, my family, everyone that's done something or even said something positive to me, proud," says Torres.
That community has continually made sacrifices to help Torres reach for more, since the very beginning. His family couldn't afford to own a car when he first got started in karate, so would walk him 15 minutes to and from their local Florida dojo, where he trained. Torres parents would supplement their income with donations to help pay for further travel to his out-of-state championships.
"That was hard. Sometimes food was hard, you know, but thankfully my dad came up with this idea," he recounts. " 'Hey, Ariel, let's ask for donations in the street.' " The pair would walk to a busy intersection by Torres' school with a poster, stopping cars when the light turned red to ask for support in getting him to his competitions.
"I had a bucket and I'd be like just walking around and I'll do like a kata, a performance of some forms, predetermined movements," says the athlete. "And then I just put my jar out. ... People would give me a dollar, $2, $5, some cents, $10, $20. People really contributed in my community."
The kindness, he notes, is "something that I hold close to my heart." And he learned the sacrifices necessary when following your dreams, as well as how far his parents would go to support him in reaching his goals. They only wanted him to do his best, Torres tells PEOPLE.
RELATED: Olympian Laurie Hernandez Says People Still Call Her 'The Human Emoji': 'That's Still Here?'
"Every time we had a big competition, we would start collecting money in the street again," he says. "And before I knew, I became a professional. And now I'm paid to do what I love the most, you know, and I'm able to support my family. I'm able to do my best and support my community by teaching online classes and I'm giving back to the people that have helped me."
Karate is a Summer Olympic sport for the first time in Tokyo, one of five added to the schedule. Torres competes in the modality kata, which sees competitors perform pre-approved choreographed movements. A team of judges will vote on which of 20 athletes — 10 in the men's competition, and 10 in the women's — are winners. Torres' final qualifying event for the Games will be in June.
Torres has quickly shot up the rankings in the sport, going from around no. 200 globally to the world's top 10. In 2019, he won the silver medal at the Pan American Games.
"Karate has been and is my life," he says now, adding that through it he is "able to experience new things, new people, new cultures, new everything."
That "new everything" also includes starring in a Got Milk? ad alongside other Team Milk athletes, which include skateboard Maurio McCoy and softball player Cat Osterman. All Team Milk members are competing in sports debuting at the Tokyo Olympics, and will help promote the natural nutrients that come from the dairy beverage. For Torres, milk is the best fuel for his training and performance.
"I saw these incredible people growing up as a kid, so I never thought I wouldn't be a part of this incredible campaign," Torres tells PEOPLE of the iconic milk ads of the past. "Being a part of it is life-changing. I feel so proud to be a part of this team."
"I'm just thankful that they took a chance on me," he adds.
To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.
- Ariana Grande Marries Dalton Gomez in 'Tiny and Intimate' Wedding Ceremony
- Olivia Munn, Henry Golding and More Join Ken Jeong in See Us Unite for Change Special Event
- Newly Crowned Miss Universe Andrea Meza Reveals Promise She Made to Herself Before Winning
- Bobby Bones Says Falling for Fiancée Caitlin Parker Was 'One of the Best Things' to Happen to Him