Luis Martinez Caps Guatemalan Dream with Olympic Final in 100 Fly

Luis Martinez-23628606903
Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold/Aringo

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Luis Martinez Caps Guatemalan Dream with Olympic Final in 100 Fly

Seven summers ago, Luis Martinez was a kid trying to find his way in a country that wasn’t his own.

He’d moved from his native Guatemala to the United States in 2013 in service of his academic and swimming dreams, and by the fall of 2014, he had earned a spot at Missouri S&T. When he got to the States, he’d heard his coaches talk about top programs – one might have been named Auburn or something like that – but for the time being, the Division II Miners were as good a place as any to wait and learn.

Martinez recounted the story in the mixed zone of the Tokyo Olympics. Instead of a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Martinez is 26-year-old veteran of the international swimming ranks. And if that kid who trekked to Rolla, Missouri, back in 2014 could see himself now, still breathing heavy from the exertion of an Olympic final, well, he’d have a hard time believing it.

“I would not believe it,” Martinez said. “I would’ve laughed. At that point in time, even my parents didn’t believe I would make a cut for the Olympics. For an A cut, no one in my country was close.”

The only thing more improbable sounding than a Guatemalan swimmer making an Olympic final is Martinez’s actual journey, from Missouri S&T to an All-American career at Auburn to now seventh place in the world in the men’s 100 butterfly.

Martinez was only in Missouri for a semester, finding his way to Auburn in January 2015. With its international array of swimmers, Auburn prepped Martinez for the 2016 Olympics, where he finished a respectable 19th in the 100 fly. He left the school with top-10 times in the 100 fly and 200 fly among three All-American honors.

As the COVID-19 pandemic bore down in the spring of 2020 and the Olympics were postponed, Martinez bunkered down in Alabama with his training partners, among them fellow Olympians Santiago Grassi of Argentina and Luxembourg’s Julia Meynen.

That nucleus of friends provided Martinez, who with Gabriela Santis were the only two Guatemalan swimmers at the Games, a sense of community on deck. “They become kind of like my country,” Martinez said.

Luis Martinez learned so much, both for better and for worse, from the 2019 Pan Am Games, in what looks like an inflection point in his career. In the semifinals, he set a Pan Am Games record at 51.44 seconds (with Grassi second). But he was slower in the final at 51.63, opening the door for Tom Shields of the U.S. to edge him out for gold by .04. Martinez grabbed a still historic silver.

This week, there was no let up from Martinez. He went 51.29 in prelims to qualify seventh. He was fourth in his semis heat in 51.30, good for eighth overall and a spot in the final by .02 over Mehdy Metella of France.

“I didn’t make that mistake that time, and I made the finals with it,” Martinez said. “That’s the literal lesson that I learned at the Pan Am Games. But on the other side, I learned that it doesn’t matter what happens at the end. It’s just swimming and there’s more to life. If you truly enjoy what you do, the results will come.”

In the final, with nothing to lose, he went for it. Eighth at the first wall, he clawed back a spot with the third-fastest final 50 of the race in 26.86, trailing only silver medalist Kristof Milak (who at 26.03 brought it home faster than anyone ever before), and world-record holder Caeleb Dressel 26.45). It bumped Martinez over Josif Miladinov of Bulgaria, a swimmer eight years his junior, into seventh.

Martinez’s accomplishment is even grander given the paucity of Olympic success from Guatemala. The country has just one solitary Olympic medalist all time, race-walker Erick Barrondo who won silver at the London Olympics in 2012. Martinez chooses another context: When he started swimming, the Guatemalan record in the men’s 100 fly was up around 58 seconds. He nearly pushed it to a 50-point.

That’s why Martinez allowed the emotions to flood in after the semifinal swim. Seeing he’d made the Olympic final was the reward for years of toil in the pool, against long odds.

“I was speechless,” he said. “I was unbelievably emotional. It was all these things that were coming from the inside that finally registered, so I was really happy. I feel extremely happy and extremely blessed to be what I am.”

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