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The Making Of Olympian Brenda Martinez

Photo: Alain Mitchell

Brenda Martinez was born a runner, but not in the sense you’d expect of a world-championship medalist and Olympian.

“As a five-year-old kid, I was very mischievous and didn’t listen to my mom, and a lot of times I would just run from her,” says Martinez. “She knew she needed to put me into something to help with my excess energy.

Run It Out

So Martinez’s mom, a teacher’s aide, and her dad, a landscaper, enrolled their unruly daughter in a kids’ track club in their adopted hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, an agricultural town about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Her parents, Mexican immigrants “seeking a better life,” had landed there as teenagers, when the town was mostly just rows of grapevines and open fields. Martinez grew up the youngest of three, surrounded by her “tight-knit” extended family—her grandma, aunts, cousins—living next door. They made do with very little.

“My parents planted that seed in my head that you have to work hard for what you have,” says Martinez, now 29. When she started competing in regional track meets as an adolescent, her parents paid for the trips by selling homemade tamales, a traditional Mexican dish. “I remember them staying up all night making them,” she says. Other times, they organized a community car wash. When her parents didn’t have the money to pay for her track club fees, her coach told her to keep coming to practice. “We have always found a way to get things done in my life, and we couldn’t have done it without the generosity of others,” she says. 

Coming of Age

In high school, it became clear that running had turned into more than just an energy outlet for a rambunctious girl—Martinez established school records in the 1,600 meters, 800 meters and 2- and 3-mile distances. Her coach, Carlton Austin, told her that if she worked hard enough, she could be the first person in her family to go to college. Maybe she could even get a full ride, he said.

Knowing she wanted to stay close to home, Martinez decided on the University of California at Riverside, where she was awarded a full scholarship to run. After struggling initially to balance the challenges of collegiate running, rigorous academics (she was a sociology major) and being on her own for the first time, she hit her stride by her sophomore year. Martinez began claiming indoor and outdoor school records, from the 800 meters to the distance medley relay, and after racing in Europe during her junior year, started seriously considering a professional running career.

“I was testing the waters, so I did a little race circuit in Belgium and Germany and walked away with a couple PRs,” says Martinez. It was just the encouragement she needed. She graduated from UC Riverside as a three-time NCAA All-American and began her search for a new coach—and team—that could take her running to the next level.

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