To watch the excruciating 1,500-meter race that qualified UCR alumnus Brenda Martinez ’10 for the 2016 Summer Olympics is to feel like you’re holding your breath for 4 minutes and 6 harrowing seconds.
For most of the race, Martinez is at the back of the pack, her dark ponytail swaying and her face an impassive mask of concentration. Watching her stride forward, drop back and then, unbelievably, fling herself over the finish line to win third place by .03 of a second is both exhilarating and exhausting.
“It was definitely the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” Martinez, 29, said in July, right before she left for Rio de Janeiro. “I got sick after that trial, just because I broke myself.”
Don’t be alarmed. Martinez breaks herself a lot. It’s part of her training, and the toughness she learned from driving all over Southern California looking for tracks to train on, and being rejected by two top notch running teams before she was taken on by legendary distance-running coach Joe Vigil — who sends her workouts from Colorado every week.
The 2016 trials were Martinez’s third attempt to make an Olympic team. The first was in 2008, when she was a sophomore at UCR, where she graduated two years later with a B.A. in sociology. “Being at UCR gave me the best experience,” she said. “It wasn’t a big powerhouse program, but I got to know the coaches on a personal level, which I appreciate.”
Her then-coaches Irv Ray and Nate Browne encouraged her to compete around the world. “They wanted me to make sure this was something I wanted to do,” she said. “I went to Europe on my own during my junior year, and walked away with two personal bests.”
In the last few years, Martinez has focused on the 800 meter. She earned a bronze medal for that race at the 2013 World Championships, and was the first American woman to medal at the 800 meter since 1988. In the qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics, however, she was accidentally tripped by another athlete and fell behind.
“It was heartbreaking,” Martinez said, “[But] I said, ‘I still have the 1,500 and I’m strong enough to make it. Let’s start over.’”
In late July she packed for Rio — ”bug spray, ear buds, lots of gear (from her sponsor New Balance), dry food that doesn’t go bad, tons of Pedialyte and probiotics” with high hopes. She finished third in the 1,500m qualifiers and advanced to the semifinals, but finished with a time of 4:10.41, and did not make it to the finals. On Twitter, she vowed to return to the Olympics. “Behind every strong, independent woman lies a broken little girl who had to learn to get back up! I will be back!”
Martinez credits her grit to her supporters — especially her family and coaches. She doesn’t want to let her family down, she said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean winning a medal.
“The only thing I promise myself is I will give it my best,” she said. “I don’t care if I finish dead last; If I tell myself I did my best, then I can walk away happy.”
To Martinez, happiness also means giving back. Knowing how hard her parents worked to support her dreams, Martinez hosts an all-expenses paid summer camp for young girls in Big Bear Lake. The girls attend positive thinking and injury prevention clinics, and receive running shoes and gear.
“Over the years, I’ve learned what mostly matters is how happy I am. I’ve had a baseline of being happy for so long, a little adversity shouldn’t knock me down too much.”
UC Riverside Athletics
Martinez had an impressive career at UCR, setting numerous records and earning the All-American title three times. In the spirit of her Olympic debut, take a look back at Martinez’s amazing accomplishments:
Oct 29, 2005
Martinez becomes the first member of the Highlanders, male or female, to finish in the top 10 in the Big West Cross Country Championship, coming in tenth with a time of 21:43.5.
Jan 26, 2007
Martinez runs the anchor leg of the Women’s Indoor Distance Medley at the University of Washington Invitational, setting the Highlanders’ program record in the event.
May 13, 2007
Martinez wins the first of her seven Big West Conference Track & Field championships, taking the 1,500m with a time of 4:23.87.
May 27, 2008
Martinez is named the UCR Female Student-Athlete of the Year. She earns this honor again in 2009 and the title of UCR’s Co-Female Student Athlete of the Year in 2010.
Feb 14, 2009
Martinez breaks the school record in the Indoor Mile with an NCAA provisional qualifying time of 4:39.92 at the University of Washington Husky Classic, becoming the first UC Riverside student-athlete during the Highlanders’ Division I-era to qualify for the NCAA Indoor National Championship.
Mar 14, 2009
Martinez breaks her own school record in the Indoor Mile at the NCAA Championship, finishing seventh with a time of 4:39.58, earning All-America honors in the process. She goes on to earn the All-America distinction two more times—in 2009 and in 2010.
May 20, 2009
Martinez is named Big West Conference Women’s Track Athlete of the Year.
Martinez graduates from UC Riverside with a degree in sociology and law and society being the first of her family to attend college.
SOURCE: UCR Athletics Department