In one of Robin William's most recognizable films, Patch Adams, he has the remarkable ability to brighten the day of children in the most tragic of situations. Champion Paralympic athlete Rudy Garcia-Tolson knows firsthand that this was far from just an act.
Born with popliteal pterygium syndrome, a condition in which webbing of the skin limits mobility, Rudy Garcia-Tolson was just 5 when both of his legs were amputated above the knee so he could use prosthetics more effectively. This did little to stop Rudy's competitive drive. At 6, Rudy began swimming, and a decade later he won gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games, breaking a world record in the 200-meter individual medley.
In 1996, Rudy began participating in triathlons as the swimmer on relay teams. The following year he met Williams at a Malibu triathlon, and it was the start of a surreal relationship.
"It was almost mythical," Garcia-Tolson said. "I was the kid that had the big movie star as a friend."
Garcia-Tolson's father informed him of Williams' passing Monday.
"I will always carry Robin with me," Garcia-Tolson said. "We will really miss him this year."
Williams was huge cycling fan. "He would even go to the tour de France," Garcia-Tolson said.
It was this passion along with the help of professional triathlete Scott Tinley that led to the formation of Team Braveheart in the annual triathlon for the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego. For 11 years, Garcia-Tolson did the swimming, Williams did the cycling and Tinley finished it with the run.
Williams' participation and genuine passion for CAF led to "much more exposure for people with the same circumstances as me," Rudy said. "He genuinely understood the daily problems of an amputee. ... He would even bring other celebrities to the events like Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell. It did a lot to bring attention to the foundation."
Their friendship grew beyond the triathlon team. He competed in online gaming with both Williams and his children, all of whom were close in age to Rudy. Garcia-Tolson even found himself at the film star's home in northern California.
Now 25, Garcia-Tolson said Williams was a subtle yet powerful influence, providing that inspiration so frequently seen on screen. Rudy remembers the concern Robin had for his well-being throughout his life as well as the constant effort put forth by Williams to make him smile. Despite Robin's ever-present fame, Rudy never saw any difference between the Robin Williams on the big screen and the Robin Williams he knew.
"He just went full speed with it," he said. "I think he knew from a young age that making people laugh was his gift, so him in reality was the same as on camera."
From the day they met, Robin had an immediate interest in the challenges that athletes such as Garcia-Tolson faced.
"He was really interested in my legs, how they worked; he had an engineering mind," he said. "He genuinely understood the challenges we faced more than most people."
Garcia-Tolson, who earned an ESPY nomination in 2010 for Best Male Athlete with a Disability, is recovering from a shoulder injury after completing another Ironman triathlon competition with Tinley. (Rudy was the first double amputee to ever complete an Ironman in 2009.)
After some rest, Rudy will train for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He will be competing in both swimming (100- and 200-meter individual medleys) as well as track and field (long jump).
Adding to this packed athletic schedule, Rudy has also just announced his bid to make the U.S. Paralympic triathlon team. He lives in Chula Vista, California, where he also works out at the Olympic training center.
Even with all of his athletic accomplishments, Garcia-Tolson said it was still his special connection with Williams that made him "the luckiest kid in the world."