Just when he was adjusting to life as a University of Illinois freshman, Raymond Martin got the call that the U.S. Olympic Committee had named him Paralympic SportsMan of the Year.
The 18-year-old wheelchair racer from Jersey City, N.J., won four gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games between Sept. 2 and Sept. 8. He started classes in Champaign, Ill. on Sept. 11. The call came Sept. 17.
“Class started on the 27th of August, but I missed two full weeks of school,” said Martin, who was born with arthrogyrposis, a disorder that limits joint flexibility in his entire body. “It was rough the first week because I really had no idea what was going on. I’m a freshman; it’s a totally different experience from high school.
“This week it’s actually getting easier, I actually know what the professors are saying and I’m getting caught up with my work. It’s definitely getting easier.”
In fact, Martin was in class when he got the call to tell him he won the award.
“I didn’t even know the award existed to be honest,” said Martin, who is only the award’s third recipient in its current format. “I didn’t have that much information on it but I was really excited to find out.”
In his first trip to the Paralympic Games this summer in London, Martin won every event he competed in, including Team USA’s first track and field gold of the Games in the 100-meters. Martin, who competes in the T52 class, also won gold in the 200-, 400- and 800-meters.
The 200-meter world-record holder wasn’t surprised by his time of 30.25 seconds in that event, but he was shocked to win the 100-meters by beating his teammate, Paul Nitz, who has won three Paralympic gold medals in the 100.
“My first race, the 100-meters, I was only ranked third; that was absolutely my worst race,” Martin said. “My U.S. teammate and I raced together 10 times and he beat me every time. He has the world record. He was the favorite going in.
“It was a little shocking I won because I was just getting my feet wet in the whole stadium atmosphere. After that it just started rolling and I started getting momentum.”
That first gold-medal performance was made all the more amazing by the fact that Martin was “freaking out” going into the Games because he was missing so much school. Fortunately, a handful of other current and former Paralympians from the University of Illinois were there to put his mind at ease. Thirteen of the 26 wheelchair track athletes on the U.S. Paralympic Team were from Illinois, including Martin and three-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, who won four medals in London.
“For sure I went into the Games a little nervous,” he said. “They told me not to worry, to focus on the Games and you’ll figure it out when you get back.”
It also helped that the scholarship athlete at Illinois entered the Games as the winner of the 200, 400 and 800-meters at the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Trials, where he set world and American records in the 200 and 800. Martin also won two golds and two silvers at the 2011 Parapan American Games, and he clocked national records in the 200 and the 400 at the Swiss Series this year.
So after all that, arriving on campus on Sept. 10, the day after the Closing Ceremony, was a huge adjustment for Martin. His dorm welcomed him with a banner and open arms, but most students did not know who he was.
In London, however, it was a different story.
“I was there for two weeks,” Martin said. “I got used to people recognizing me. They’d say, ‘Oh did I see you on TV winning the race?’
“Toward the end (of the Games) people started knowing my name. And I was incognito, too, because I didn’t have any U.S. gear on, because I didn’t want to be bothered. And people were like, ‘I recognize you,’ and I was like, ‘Sweet.’
On campus, however, Marin wears nothing but Team USA gear.
“They gave us so much stuff it’s part of my daily attire now just because they give you so much stuff,” he said. “Today in class I was wearing my national team hoodie and someone said ‘Oh that’s a cool jacket.’ I was like ‘Thanks.’
Just as things started to settle down for Martin, he is flying out to Colorado Springs to receive his award at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly.
In addition to Martin, several other athletes will be honored: sprinter Allyson Felix (Olympic SportsWoman of the Year); swimmer Michael Phelps (Olympic SportsMan of the Year); the U.S. women’s eight rowing team (Olympic Team of the Year); swimmer Jessica Long (Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year) and the U.S. men’s quad doubles wheelchair tennis team of Nick Taylor and David Wagner (Paralympic Team of the Year).
Names such as Felix and Phelps might seem like they would put stars in Martin’s eyes. But a former nominee for Best Male Athlete with a Disability at the ESPY Awards, Martin is not exactly a stranger to award ceremonies.
And while the trip to Colorado is uprooting him from his college routine, it’s not as if Martin was just sitting around eating pizza in his dorm room. The prospective kinesiology major, who wants to become an occupational therapist, said he started training for the Oct. 7 Chicago Marathon just days after arriving on campus.
“I got back Monday and I started training Thursday so I got three days off,” said the first-time marathoner who did his first 20-mile training session recently. “It was rough. After 10 miles I got really sore. I don’t know how I’m going to do in Chicago but I’m doing it.”