Let others find their role models in the sports pages; James
Martinez sees his in a terra-cotta pot. ``The cactus,'' says the
30-year-old lightweight sculler, holding up a six-inch example in
his apartment in Augusta, ``is the perfect model of efficiency. It
doesn't take much water, but it's strong, and when it blooms, it
is as beautiful as anything. I want to be the most efficient
person in the world, to waste as little as possible, to get the
most out of the least -- like the cactus. I just hope I'm not as
This is an article from the March 20, 1995 issue
However else he may resemble his desert plant, the 6'2",
155-pound Martinez is one of nature's most sharply defined
creations. In just six years of rowing he has gone from a mere
novice to the top lightweight sculler in the world last year and
third in the U.S. in the open-weight single sculls -- an
achievement not unlike that of a Class A baseball player going
straight to the majors in one season.
Martinez attributes his rapid rise, in part, to two things: a
religious faith so deep that he leaves every rowing medal he wins
at the foot of a statue of St. Joseph, and an excruciatingly
healthy, environmentally virtuous existence that few could
embrace. Among the many things Martinez has sworn off for health
or environmental reasons are what he calls the ``three C's,''
which are otherwise recognizable as the building blocks of the
American lifestyle: cars, corn syrup and cable TV. James and his
wife, Elizabeth, haven't owned a car for three years, and when he
walks, bikes or runs, he wears recycled cotton-and-rubber shoes.
As if that weren't enough sacrifice for the good of the planet, he
also washes his infant daughter's cloth diapers by hand, on a
washboard. ``It helps me work on my stroke,'' he says cheerfully.
``And you know what? It's actually fun.''
Martinez follows each diaper change with 20 sit-ups, and he has
already sketched plans for a contraption that will swing
three-month-old Sierra Maria Martinez in front of him as he works
out on a rowing machine. ``Because there is so little financial
support for rowers in this country, people think your career is
finished as soon as you get married and have kids,'' says
Martinez, who is now training full time with the national team in
Augusta. ``But this baby is going to help me get stronger.''
Sierra Maria's infancy promises to be unusual in many ways. In an
effort to minimize what he calls the ``photographic process,''
which, he has read, contributes ``40 to 60 percent of the chemical
toxic waste in our country,'' James will send out baptism
announcements accompanied by a drawing of the baby rather than a
photo. ``I wish I could ask people to check all cameras at the
door when they come to see her,'' he adds wistfully, ``but I
guess that would be a little harsh for the grandparents.''
It's just as well that Martinez isn't crazy about collecting
photographs, because his preferred method of environmentally
correct long-distance travel -- Amtrak -- often gets him to rowing
events too late for the team picture. When forced to fly, as he
was last summer for a regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, Martinez
calculates the number of trees required to absorb the CO2 created
by the plane's flight -- ``It takes one adult tree approximately a
year to absorb the carbon dioxide created by the burning of one
gallon of gas,'' he says, referring to a tidbit he picked up in
the Toronto Star -- divides by the number of estimated passengers
(factoring in baggage and freight) and then plants that number of
trees before he flies. His trip to Lucerne resulted in 105 new
green ash, oak and pine trees in the Washington, D.C., area, which
was where James and Elizabeth were living last summer.
``I did pretty well in Lucerne -- fourth place -- even though my
back was sore from all that planting,'' Martinez says. ``Can you
imagine me in a crew? `Excuse me guys, I can't take a plane,' and
`I must plant trees,' and `I have to go to Mass every Sunday.' I
am a burden to my teammates, I know that. But these things are
important to me.''
Martinez hasn't always had this fierce environmental commitment,
and unlike most oarsmen on the national team, he didn't row in
college. After graduating from Stanford in 1988 with a degree in
mechanical fluids engineering, Martinez, a former Santa Fe High
tennis standout (who, unlike each of his five siblings, did not
win a New Mexico state title), was looking for a new athletic
outlet when he watched Ann Marden's come-from- behind silver medal
performance in the single sculls at the 1988 Olympics. ``It was
such an inspirational performance that I wrote her a letter,''
says Martinez, who included silver confetti in the envelope.
Marden wrote back, challenging Martinez to try rowing at a center
in Long Beach, Calif., about 45 miles from his engineering job in
Canoga Park. Martinez took the bait, making the daily
traffic-choked three-hour round trip to Long Beach by -- gasp --
car. ``At the time, I was the most environmentally destructive
creature on earth,'' he says, wincing at the memory. That changed
in April 1989, when he met Elizabeth Fiering, then a student at UC
Santa Barbara and now an environmental consultant. During many
heated debates, she convinced the newly minted engineer that the
solution to environmental problems was not in technological fixes
but in behavioral changes.
``Being on the water all the time, I started to see `fixes' like
drainage pipes in Long Beach Harbour that weren't solving
anything,'' he says. ``Slowly, I came around to her point of
view.'' Eight months after getting married, in November 1991,
the two got rid of their car and soon began avoiding other
mechanical conveyances such as elevators and escalators. While
working at an engineering firm in Washington between 1991 and
late '94, Martinez took the stairs to his 17th-floor office
about four times a day. ``People would freak out when I did
that, but it's not that big a deal,'' he says. ``I was actually
doing the simpler thing -- an elevator is much more complicated
than stairs.'' Not surprisingly, the extra legwork dramatically
improved Martinez's strength and speed. He made the national
team in 1993, just four years after first setting foot in a
``James has such an intense personality,'' says his friend and
fellow national-team sculler Andrea Thies, ``that when he decides
to help the environment, he doesn't just start recycling. He
starts at a level much higher than the average person and goes at
it from there. He did that with rowing, too. Naturally, a lot of
people think he's a crazy nut.''
``When I met him two years ago,'' says Igor Grinko, the men's
national sculling coach, ``he wasn't very fast at all, but he
said, `I want to win a gold medal in the open-weight single
scull.' I laughed, but I liked his goal. People who have gold
medal potential are never normal. They must suffer more. James
has that mental difference. He's like a kamikaze.''
Indeed, nature has yet to devise weather that will keep Martinez
off the water. While living in D.C., he had to keep a list of
training partners by the phone because nobody would train with
him every day.
``Sometimes he does things that are a little crazy,'' says Cyrus
Beasley, a fellow team member. ``Like rowing in fog when you can
only see five meters ahead.'' Or rowing 2-1/2 miles down the
Potomac in a snowstorm in a business suit to deliver unclassified
papers to the Pentagon, as Martinez did in March 1993 when the
storm tied up public transportation.
``There is no such thing as bad weather,'' Martinez insists.
``Weathermen encourage us to think of wind and cold as bad, but
weather is what it is. When you're out rowing in the blinding snow
and the heat is coming off your body, everything is so vivid and
stimulating. Besides, you need to be prepared to row in all kinds
Self-propulsion, Martinez believes, is its own reward, something
he feels others would discover if only they gave it a chance. To
that end, he would like to shut down all the escalators in D.C.
for one day. ``By taking the stairs, people will find either that
`Hey, it's not so hard,' or `Wow, I am out of shape,' '' he says.
``Also, it would be a great day for maintenance.''
``James has always been a dreamer and a great spontaneous
thinker,'' says his mother, Exilda, with a sigh. ``But he isn't
always terribly practical.''
Indeed, as the Atlanta Olympics approach, Martinez has already
decided how he will travel the 150 miles from Augusta if he makes
the team. The trip, a 50-minute plane ride for some and a
three-hour drive for others, will be at least a two-day bike ride
for Martinez. But getting on the team in the first place may pose
a bigger challenge. The 1996 Games will feature lightweight rowing
events for the first time, and competition for the two seats in
the lightweight men's scull -- the double -- will be fierce. ``The
double is a whole different song from the single, and I have a lot
of work to do,'' says Martinez, who has been training with Rob
Ezold as his partner.
He hasn't completely given up on his dream of winning the gold in
the open-weight single sculls, however. ``A lightweight who could
do that would be the most efficient athlete in the world,''
Martinez says. ``And every time a heavyweight passes me in a car
while I'm on my bike, I know I'm gaining on him.''