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Olympic Runner Brenda Martinez Bounces Back In Time For Rio

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Next week, Brenda Martinez takes her place at the starting line in Rio, but she nearly didn't make it to the Olympics. The runner suffered a devastating loss last month in the 800-meter final at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials when her foot tangled with another runner and she tripped and fell. But Martinez bounced back days later to qualify in the 1,500-meter race by three hundredths of a second. She joins us now on Skype from Rio de Janeiro. Thank you so much for joining us, Brenda.

BRENDA MARTINEZ: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So there's this photo of you that shows you literally throwing yourself across the finish line. Did you know at that very point that you had actually qualified for the Olympics?

MARTINEZ: I think I had kind of, like, a feeling that maybe I made the team. I just wasn't sure. But I think when I was on the ground, one of my teammates, Jenny Simpson, actually ran up to me and the crowd was just so loud, so I kind of just assumed that it was me. And I think once they delivered the good news, yeah, I just started crying. But, yeah, it was a good day.

CHANG: You started running when you were really, really young. How old were you?

MARTINEZ: I was 5 years old when I started club track.

CHANG: What?

MARTINEZ: And the reason - yeah. At a young age, I was pretty - pretty bad. Like, my mom would actually hit me with a belt. And I think there was times where I just outrun her, and I think she just knew I - she needed to do something about that energy that I had. And, yeah, so she signed me up for club track, and I didn't actually know that we were racing. Like, I didn't understand that concept. Like, I didn't even have, like, the proper shoes. I think I showed up with, like, basketball shoes or something. But, yeah, I mean, I've learned a lot since then, and it's pretty much my life.

CHANG: Yeah, you mentioned that you didn't have the right shoes when you were little, and you've been pretty open about your family's financial struggles when you were trying to train.

MARTINEZ: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I mean, at a young age, like, you don't realize - or I didn't see them as problems. Like, I didn't even think to say, like, oh, I can't afford running shoes. Like, my parents just always found a way. Like, my dad would do, like, side jobs. He's pretty handy, so he would do plumbing or landscaping and - but my mom would also get donations with masa. It's what you make for the tamales. And so she would get, like, a store - I think it was, like, in Ontario, Calif., - and they would donate a lot of masa.

And she would buy the meat, and she would actually wake up at 3 in the morning and start, you know, prepping the tamales because it's pretty much, like, an all-day process, especially if you're going to make a lot. So that pretty much funded a lot of my trips. And they never complained. They just knew, like, hey, this is what we have to do for our kids. And I feel like they just planted that seed that you can always find a way.

CHANG: I now hear that your - you found a way to help other up-and-coming runners who are struggling financially, too.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. You know, my coach, Dr. Joe Vigil, always, like, planted that seed in my head. Like, hey, whatever you receive, like, you got to, you know, share it with the world. And he gave me the idea of actually having a girls camp, and I picked 10 girls and then I host them up in Big Bear Lake, Calif., where I live. And it's up in the mountains, and we provide them with three pairs of shoes, two full outfits, and then we actually do clinics and seminars. And we cover topics of, like, happiness, positive thinking, injury prevention and whatnot. And I think it's a good thing. The girls have a really good time, and you actually see them become friends after camp, so I like that, too.

CHANG: That's really cool.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

CHANG: So you have some time before the 1,500-meter finals. It's a week from Tuesday. What is your focus in the next week? Like, how do you mentally prepare for a competition like that?

MARTINEZ: I'm fit, so I'm confident in the training that I'm doing right now. It's just about maintaining, not doing anything crazy. I'm just going to hang out in my hotel, have my tea, you know, write and read. And, you know, I'm going to treat it like a business trip. I'm not here to have a good time. I'm here to represent the U.S. and in the best possible way.

CHANG: Brenda Martinez will be running in the 1,500-meter race in the Olympics. It was such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much, Brenda.

MARTINEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.