National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Martinez Exemplifies Courage, Overcomes Adversity

By Randi Pierce
Staff Writer
Pagosa Springs Sun
PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. – Michael Martinez is no stranger to adversity, nor is he a stranger to fighting back, on the wrestling mat or in life.

Instead, Michael has made a name for himself by exhibiting one characteristic in particular — courage — in overcoming that adversity.

That courage has not gone unnoticed, with Michael receiving the Medal of Courage from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Colorado Chapter in 2016.

Only 30 at the time, Michael was the fourth person to receive the Colorado Chapter’s Medal of Courage, and the first since 2009.

And, earlier this month, Michael garnered another honor — he was presented with the Medal of Courage from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame itself, landing him in the Stillwater, Oklahoma, institution.

He was nominated by the Colorado Chapter.

“That one was a shock,” Michael said. “I mean, that’s something you, you know, when you pursue something, you kind of dream of those things. And, for me, I never … achieved anything great enough in the sport to really be nominated for the Hall of Fame as an athlete. And I know lots of people who have and I have a great amount of respect for all of those guys.”

“Michael epitomizes our Medal of Courage,” said Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, when it was announced in December that Michael would receive the award. “He is a young man who has used his background in wrestling to overcome adversity on multiple occasions. Like those previous Medal of Courage recipients, Michael’s story is truly inspirational, and we are so happy to share it.”

According to the press release announcing Michael’s receipt of the award, “The Medal of Courage is presented each year to a wrestler or former wrestler who has overcome what appear to be insurmountable challenges and provides inspiration to others.”

Michael was not originally named as this year’s recipient, however.

James McCloughan was originally announced as the medal recipient, but was unable to attend Honors Weekend due to a grandson’s graduation.

“Mr. McCloughan was a military man that went through insurmountable odds, I mean he was unbelievable, his story,” Michael said. “So my thought process was, we need to find another guy like him. So, I told them, … and they had already made their pick. … And so I had mixed feelings. I was really grateful, but part of me was thinkin’, you know, there’s a lot of people out there that are worthy of that award.”

But no one would argue that Michael is also worthy.

He’s been kicked in the jaw by a bull he was riding. He broke his ankle before the final football game of the season, then was in a car accident while still in the cast. Then there was back surgery and multiple spinal procedures. His family’s home burned at another point.

Then Michael was forced to recover from a different fire that left him burned over 80 percent of his body.

But, despite all that, Michael not only persevered, but found success.

He became a two-time state wrestling champion for Pagosa Springs High School and placed the other two years.

He took an Olympic redshirt year while in college to train with Team USA and wrestle around the world, which earned him a wrestling scholarship to a Division I university, where he earned his way to championship tournaments every year. He took breaks from college twice to train at the Olympic Training Center.

“I’m proud of him for his accomplishments. I really think he was going to be there one way or the other,” brother Ryan said of Michael’s entrance into the Hall of Fame, noting that it was unfortunate that the fire is what got him there.

Courage and hard work

The youngest of four kids, including three boys, Michael followed his dad, Jody, and older brothers Ryan and Daniel into the sport of wrestling at a young age.

Jody, who passed away earlier this year, was part of the inaugural Pagosa Springs High School wrestling team — the same team his sons wrestled for.

When Michael was awarded with the Colorado Chapter’s Medal of Courage in 2016, his high school coach, Dan Janowsky, spoke of Michael’s drive in wrestling, which began at a young age.

“He was obviously, even when he was little, he had this way of wrestling that was very … emotionally run,” Janowsky, who Michael later coached under, said. “It was emotional in that he was going to fight … I think he grew up looking at life that way … there are challenges that need to be fought.”

That view on Michael hasn’t changed, with Ryan stating, “He’s always had a drive that’s been … different than the norm of folks.”

Janowsky said he remembers talking to Michael when Michael, a 2004 high school graduate, was in eighth grade. At that point, Janowsky told Michael he thought the young wrestler could be Pagosa Springs’ first four-time champion, not because he possessed an inordinate level of skill physically, but because he was very skilled in mental toughness, work ethic and intensity.

“And I saw that in him in part because of that real passion he wrestled with,” Janowsky said.

That passion was evidenced in the hardships Michael faced while in high school.

One example was the only time Janowsky ever heard the words, “Coach, do you think it would be OK if I skipped a workout?” — during Michael’s sophomore year.

The question came the day after the county fair, where he’d been kicked in the jaw by the bull he was riding. At the time, Michael didn’t know his jaw was broken, just that he didn’t know if he could finish the team’s workout.

Another example was when Michael suffered a compound ankle fracture during the final football game of his junior year season, with the break requiring surgical repair. Michael was told he wouldn’t be able to wrestle that winter.

But, as Ryan pointed out, that didn’t slow him down from doing what he wanted to do.

Ryan recalled a conversation Michael had with their father after Michael expressed regret in playing football.

During that conversation, Ryan remembered, Jody asked Michael if he had fun playing football. Michael responded affirmatively, with Jody continuing by explaining that one of the risks of doing what you want is getting hurt, but that, as long as you’re having fun and doing what you want, you can’t regret your choices.

Michael, Ryan noted, took that and ran with it.

Ryan also remembered Michael riding ATVs that winter and having to shift with his hand because of the cast.

He also didn’t let it derail his wrestling season more than it had to.

In January, Michael was cleared to wrestle after spending hours on the stationary bike during wrestling practices and, in February, he claimed his first state title.

During Michael’s senior year, Janowsky recalled that the team was completing a workout the night before a tournament when Jody came rushing in, stating that he needed to take Michael because the family’s house was on fire.

At that point, Janowsky figured Michael would have to be scratched from the tournament, and that thought was further solidified the following morning when Michael didn’t show up to catch the bus.

However, when the bus arrived at the tournament, there was Michael, waiting for the team.

“He didn’t wrestle very well,” Janowsky remembered, adding, “but he won.”

Michael was also behind for much of his state championship match that year, only gaining the takedown that led to his second championship in the final seconds.

That match was refereed by Jerry Moore — the same man who would later nominate Michael for the Colorado Chapter’s Medal of Courage Award.

“He never ever, ever stopped going full speed,” Moore said in 2016, no matter the score, the time left or whether he was winning or losing.

“After enrolling at the University of Wyoming in 2008, Martinez posted a record of 116-43, won three Western Wrestling Conference championships and qualified for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships four times. Earning a degree in range ecology and watershed management, he also wrestled in the 2012 Olympic Trials, losing to eventual Olympic team member Sam Hazewinkel,” the Hall of Fame’s December announcement reads.

Through wrestling, Janowsky noted in 2016, Michael “honed a courage that I think saved his life.”

Life-saving courage

That courage came to the forefront on April 1, 2013, when the trailer Michael was staying in on his family’s ranch caught fire.

“Because he lived on a ranch in a sparsely inhabited area and cell phone service was almost non-existent, he faced a series of obstacles,” the 2016 banquet program notes. “First, the 911 operator was unable to determine Michael’s location. Then, due to the condition of the roads, it was 30 minutes before the EMTs arrived. Unfortunately, they were not completely prepared for what they found. Because of the extent of his injuries, the EMTs were reluctant to use an IV and the alternative was Tylenol.”

It was another 30 minutes before Flight for Life arrived, and they had to wait for the blades to stop on the helicopter before loading Michael because of the infection risk.

It should also be noted that, despite being so badly burned, Michael’s response to the fire was to try to put it out while he called for help.

While Michael probably should have been in the hospital for almost three months to heal from his injuries, he left in just 21 days to continue his rehabilitation at his parents’ home, without the help of a physical therapist.

“When all is said and done, he has this unbelievable level of trust,” Janowsky said, adding that he believes that has helped Michael, with him believing people who told him he could accomplish things.

Not done yet

“The injuries and the adversity and the little things, it was just an obstacle on the way to his goal,” Ryan said.

“Myself and my siblings, obviously, we were taught from a young age to overcome struggles,” Michael said, acknowledging his parents, as well as his coaches over the years, beginning with his dad. “But then I moved on and had some of the greatest coaches in the nation and in the world who took their time and put it toward my career. So I was able to keep developing into who I am now and I think … I think those kinds of things have helped me, like through a hard situation, as far as the fire goes. I’ve been blessed to have good people in my life, there’s no doubt about that.”

Michael also noted the support of his wife of just over a year, Kathleen.

Now, in addition to working as a surveyor, Michael runs the Cornerstone Wrestling Club, which helps wrestlers from across the Four Corners, youth to post-college age, learn and improve in multiple wrestling styles.

Multiple workouts are held each week in places like Pagosa, Ignacio, Bloomfield or Dulce, with other regional coaches now helping to run those workouts.

Ryan, who had just moved back home from Fort Collins when Michael was starting the club a few years ago, helps him.

“Ryan and I, we’re on a mission,” Michael said.

The club has more than two dozen wrestlers registered, though it allows additional wrestlers with the proper insurance to join the workouts.

“On weekends, he’s driving four, six, eight hours just to get to the good tournaments,” Ryan said of his brother’s commitment to the wrestlers.

The program aims to bolster wrestling in the Four Corners.

“He really does care deeply for people in general,” Ryan said, adding that Michael genuinely cares about the success of the kids he’s coaching, and the success of his family.