Letticia Martinez is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
Letticia Martinez always knew she wanted to be an athlete. The only problem? She didn't quite know what sport she was meant for. As a child, she bounced around from activity to activity before she eventually landed on swimming in her freshman year of high school and never looked back.
Learning to swim competitively is never easy, especially if your prior experience begins and ends with dog paddling in kiddie pools as a child, but the real challenge for Martinez went deeper: she wasn't able to see the walls on each end of the pool.
Letticia Martinez is legally blind. Diagnosed with Leber's Congenital Amaurosis at the age of 3, Martinez's retinas are steadily disintegrating due to the degenerative disease. She's also color blind, so learning to swim presented a unique challenge.
"I had to learn the strokes without any sight. I couldn't watch anyone. That was always challenging because I had to just imagine it in my head," Martinez explained. "Eventually I had a coach get in the water with me and show me but it's still really hard to fully grasp the idea of the strokes since I don't have anything to picture or anything to go back on visually."
Swimming in a straight line, learning how to jump into her lane rather than someone else's at the beginning of a race, and turning before hitting the wall were all difficult at first, but Martinez never let it dampen her spirit for long. She continued swimming competitively as a high school student, and even though she usually came in dead last, she didn't let it deter her. It was thanks to a chance encounter with another blind swimmer at one of her high school swim meets that Martinez got started on the path that would eventually lead her to become a fierce international competitor.
On that fateful day, the other swimmer approached Martinez and her dad and told them that he thought she had a good shot at qualifying for the Paralympics. For those not in the know, the Paralympics is one of the largest international sporting events in the world, and is in fact planned and managed concurrently with the Olympic Games, though the competition features athletes with a range of disabilities.
Martinez was immediately interested, and that chance meeting with another blind swimmer turned out to be a new beginning for her. She dove headfirst, literally, into the world of paralympic swimming and international competitions. She now holds American Paralympic records in a dozen events, including the 50, 100, and 200 meter breaststroke and the 50, 100, and 200 meter butterfly.
That's impressive enough, but Martinez says that one of the highlights of career was making it onto Team USA for the first time and heading to the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
"It's like the Olympics, but better because we're all having to fight through a disability and it just makes it that much more special," Martinez explained. "I have some incredible teammates who do some crazy things - girls that swim with no arms, people that swim with no legs, paralyzed people that swim."
Martinez finished 8th in the 100m breaststroke at the London games, something she's determined to surpass when she competes in the 2016 Paralympic Games, which are being held in Rio de Janeiro through September 18.
In preparation to meet her goal, Martinez spends at least 25 hours a week training. She lives away from her family at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and wakes up before the sun does six days a week for early morning practices - yes, even on Saturdays. All this in addition to taking college courses online in the hopes of reaching another goal: to one day be a sports psychologist. Sports, she says, are all in the mind, and she credits her sports psychologist for being one of the keys to her success, along with her coaches, friends, and family. Still, despite her drive, talent, and the support system rallied around her, she doesn't always come out on top, but that's all a part of life.
"When things don't got the way I planned or just don't go the way I want or I'm having a hard week of practices, I just try to remind myself that it's ok to fail," Martinez said. "If I didn't ever fail then I wouldn't experience some of the lessons [I needed to learn]. I have to always remind myself it's not necessarily about the outcome, it's about the journey, and it's ok to fall and to fail. I need to get up stronger than ever and keep pushing towards that end goal that I have in mind because I know that I can eventually get there."
And get there she has. Martinez will be competing in five events at the Rio Games: the 100 meter backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle, as well as the 50 meter freestyle and the 200 meter individual medley. It will be her second time at the Paralympics, but not her last - she already has her sights set on 2020.
"Don't ever worry about what anyone else thinks you can do or can't do, because at the end of the day, if it's something that you want to do and it's something that you feel that you can make happen, that's all that matters," said Martinez.