The rusted white motor home sits between a pair of cottonwoods 30 yards from the raging San Juan River. After a long day of trimming trees and re-trenching irrigation ditches on his family’s 236-acre Archuleta County property, Michael Martinez sits on the trailer’s step with the door propped open and pulls off a boot, flinging a mud clod toward the river.
The 27-year-old needs to be back out in the field early tomorrow morning, so it’s easier to spend the night on the ranch, 14 miles south of Pagosa Springs, than to make the 40-minute drive home. The land bows along the river, and Michael’s uncle and brother live about a mile away on the ranch’s far south side. Michael’s new cherry red Dodge Ram pickup sits behind the motor home in shiny contrast to the mud-colored canyon wall and patchy, infertile ground.
The scent of gas stops Michael before he climbs into the 20-foot trailer—it’s propane. With the sun fading, he yanks his boots back on and scoots beneath the motor home with a screwdriver and a flashlight. He sees that the line between the propane tank and the hose to the stove is loose. After tightening a screw, he wriggles his sinewy, five-foot-seven-inch frame out from under the motor home and heads inside. When he twists the kitchenette stove’s knobs, the odor is gone.
Michael decides to skip dinner tonight—April 1, 2013—and leans back into the kitchenette’s bench seat to pluck his guitar, strumming quietly in the dark until he’s ready for bed. At about 9:30 p.m., he pulls off his shirt, hoists himself into the narrow bed space, slips into a sleeping bag, and drifts off.
Sometime after midnight, Michael awakens to the spring night’s chill. He drops to the floor wearing only boxer briefs, but it’s freezing, so he turns the stove’s knob, reaches for a half-empty matchbook, and strikes one. His eyes track the faint outline of propane as its edges ignite into a long blue flame, an instant before the fire bursts toward Michael’s bare chest and face.
He twists violently away from the stove; his arms shield his head as the fireball envelops his body. His hands paw at the door behind him, groping for the small silver knob. A flick of his wrist and he’d be out. When he finally finds it, the knob is melting.
Adrenaline kicks in. Michael rams the door twice with his left shoulder. The second lunge pushes it open and sends him flying out of the trailer. He lands about 10 feet from the door in a three-point stance, like a football lineman, and presses into a standing position, his hands clawing at the ground to grab fistfuls of dirt that he hurls at his burning trailer. He’s not panicked; he’s pissed. He unleashes a string of profanities at the climbing flames. His guitar and computer are still in the trailer, and he momentarily considers trying to rescue them—until he glances down and sees ribbons of his skin dripping toward the ground.
Cell phone service doesn’t always extend to the ranch, so Michael scrambles to his pickup, grabs the keys he left on the seat, starts the engine, and floors it. Cow hooves have rutted the mile-long dirt road during the rainy spring, and the stretch is meant to be driven at less than 10 miles an hour. Michael is going so fast his smoldering head smacks the roof, leaving a charcoal smudge of burnt hair near the visor. He reaches the gravel county road, takes two quick turns, and speeds toward his uncle’s house.
He has enough presence of mind to remember the stray nails and jagged, broken boards along the ragged porch, and he steps gingerly up to the front door. It’s unlocked. “Gene, where’s the phone?” Michael hollers inside to his uncle as he moves through the cluttered living room—past empty food boxes at least a decade old and stacks of magazines and newspapers—toward a narrow hallway leading to his uncle’s bedroom. Gene is on the edge of his bed, not yet fully awake. He rises and turns on the lights to see his nephew, wide-eyed and half naked. Even in the dim light, Gene can see that everything but his nephew’s face is either charred or oozing like rendered meat.
“You need to call 911,” Michael says. “The stupid motor home caught fire.”
Terry Brands can’t shake the kid, so he drops him—over and over again. Michael Martinez, four years old and maybe three-feet-six-inches tall under a helmet of thick black hair, charges toward Brands’ knees, certain he can make them buckle if he hits the man with enough force. The first few times, Michael wraps his twiggy arms around one of Brands’ legs and drives, furiously churning his legs in his tiny hand-me-down wrestling shoes. Brands, a nationally ranked wrestler at the University of Iowa, doesn’t budge, so Michael moves back 10 feet, crouches into a low stance, and lunges again. This time, Brands moves right and swipes his leg at the wily youngster’s feet. Michael lands with a thud—and a grin. He’s just learned a valuable lesson: Come back stronger, or don’t come back at all.
Brands first visited Pagosa Springs in the summer of 1991, when rookie high school coach Dan Janowsky wanted to hold a camp in conjunction with the Iowa Hawkeyes’ legendary collegiate wrestling team. Janowsky called Iowa assistant coach Keith Mourlam to see if he might want to help out the budding teen wrestling program. Mourlam didn’t want to travel all the way to southern Colorado, but Brands volunteered to go. Then a soon-to-be senior at Iowa, he first arrived in Pagosa Springs the summer before he went 35-0 and won his second NCAA title. Nearly every summer after—even during the years he won a pair of World Championships, even when he took bronze in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney—Brands showed up to help.
Michael’s own introduction to the world’s oldest Olympic sport came long before Janowsky’s camp. Born on February 10, 1986, in Durango, Michael took some of his earliest steps on a wrestling mat. His father, Joseph (who goes by the nickname Jody), wrestled on the inaugural Pagosa Springs High School team in the ’70s, and his three sons, Ryan, Daniel, and Michael, followed him into the sport. Even their sister, Joetta, served as a sparring partner when their youth wrestling team was short a member. Years later, she’d plan her wedding around a local wrestling team fund-raiser (the same band, fronted by coach Janowsky’s brother, Andy, was booked for both events).
Being the youngest and smallest of the four siblings never mattered to Michael, who loved watching his dad and older brothers wrestle and was never afraid to try a move or a hold. “From a very young age, Michael could take a beating without accepting the beating,” Brands says. “It instantly turned into motivation.”
Hand to Hand
Martinez coaches high school wrestlers.
A sudden boom and Barking dogs wake Daniel Martinez and his girlfriend, Jessi Marlatt, in his three-room trailer on Gene’s lot. He’d left his brother after helping him dig irrigation ditches all afternoon. By 6:30, Daniel was ready for dinner, but Michael waved him off, wanting to work a little longer. Michael didn’t mention that he’d be staying in the motor home that night.
The bedside clock blinks 1:43 a.m. Daniel’s 10-year-old daughter is asleep, and he doesn’t want her to wake up. As he rises to go outside and see what has the dogs so worked up, an unfamiliar light shines through the bedroom window. He sees the distant flames shooting from the cottonwood trees, runs back inside, and calls his father.
“Dad, your camper. The camper’s on fire.”
“Daniel, your brother spent the night down there,” Jody says. “Go down there and check on him.”
Still in his underwear, Daniel runs to his truck. Before he makes it to the vehicle, he sees Michael’s pickup and notices that all the lights in Gene’s house are on. He rushes through the front door, relieved to hear Michael’s voice coming from the back bedroom.
“You alright?” Daniel asks.
“Well, not really.”
Michael is standing at the foot of Gene’s bed, rocking slightly, his fists clenched. His hair has shriveled and melted to the top of his head, almost like plastic, as Gene calls 911.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“My nephew was in a motor home that caught fire. He has some pretty severe burns.”
“Tell ’em they might need a fire truck, too,” Michael yells.
“He wants to know if there is anything he can put on the burns to help,” Gene says.
“I’m actually not qualified enough to know what you put on there. I would not know what to put on there other than I can get EMS rolling and out there as soon as possible. Has he been drinking or anything like that?”
The 911 operator starts to ask Gene another question about the motor home’s location, but he interrupts.
“They need to come to my house.”
“I know. I’m just trying to see if that thing is still on fire. I don’t want anybody else getting hurt,” the operator says, not realizing there’s no one else around who could. She puts Gene on mute and alerts EMS. The ride from Pagosa Springs to the ranch is 15 miles, but the road is unpaved a good 90 percent of the way, making it at least a 30-minute drive, even for a speeding ambulance.
“Where are most of the burns?” the operator asks.
“Stomach, chest, hands, legs,” Michael says.
“Pretty much all over,” Gene confirms. Michael asks if he can take a shower, hot or cold. Gene tells him no, but Michael goes into the bathroom anyway, sits in the tub, and starts running cold water. It instantly makes the pain worse, so he shuts the faucet off.
“Get in here, lay down, and cover up,” Gene yells to Michael as he waits for the operator to return.
Michael looks down at his hands. His tanned skin oozes like wax from his fingers, exposing his throbbing crimson muscles from his wrist down.
“Holy shit,” he says. “I can’t believe that happened.”
The operator returns and asks, “Does he know why it caught on fire?” Gene relays the question.
“I lit a match. I smelled the fucking propane in the truck,” Michael says. “I lit a match and I shouldn’t have.”
Just then, Daniel walks back into the room. “How’s my face look?” Michael asks.
“Your face isn’t bad. It’s your chest and your legs,” Daniel says.
Michael is already revisiting his mistakes. “When I found the door, I busted it out as fast as I could….”
Meanwhile, the operator still can’t pinpoint the fire’s location. “I’m only showing two Catholic churches. One on South Pagosa. One on Lewis,” she says.
Gene cuts her off. “There’s a Catholic church in Trujillo, 14 miles out of town. They will pass it getting to my house.”
The operator offers to call a deputy and call Gene back.
“I’d rather not hang up because I’m not sure the phone is going to work if you try to call back in,” he says, offering to take the firefighters to the fire if they can just make it to his house and help his nephew first.
Michael tells Gene again and again how cold he is. “Do you have a blanket you don’t mind getting blood on?” he asks. Gene hands him a blanket from the bed to shield his exposed flesh. Jessi stays with Michael in the bedroom as Daniel and Gene go outside to shuffle cars so the ambulance can access the door near the back bedroom. It’s been more than 30 minutes since the accident.
Playing to Win
Unable to afford physical therapy, Michael exercised his scarred hands (pictured above) by picking and strumming his guitar.
Red and blue lights flash 200 feet in every direction as the ambulance arrives. Daniel kicks away the trash blocking the back door so the gurney can roll through. Inside, as the two EMTs look over Michael’s burns, neither seems particularly assured about what to do; given the extent of the burns, they’re reluctant to try inserting an IV. Growing frustrated, Michael says, “What does a guy have to do to get something for the pain?”
“I think I’ve got some Tylenol in my bag,” one EMT says.
“That’s all you’ve got?” Daniel says with a nervous laugh. “Don’t you have some morphine for this guy? Look at him.”
After another 30 minutes, a Flight for Life helicopter lands in the barren field across from Gene’s house. They have to wait for the chopper’s blades to power down before loading Michael inside because of the infection risk from swirling dust. A Flight for Life technician finally shoots pain medication into Michael’s newly implanted IV, and his muscles begin to relax. Once the dirt settles, about two hours after the explosion occurred, the EMTs load him into the helicopter and begin the 45-minute flight to the University of New Mexico Hospital burn unit in Albuquerque. The sun is starting to rise as the chopper pierces the sky. Michael tries to sit up. “Hey buddy, you’ve got to stay down,” the paramedic insists. Michael ignores him and arches his neck to peer through the cockpit window until the EMT holds up a mirror. It reflects the view and lets Michael see a glimpse of his face, one of the few places on his body where his skin is still intact. He looks like he’s wearing a tiger-striped mask, streaked with patches of dry, hard flesh that alternate between burnt and merely singed. “I’ve never been up in one of these things, and I’d like to see what everything looks like,” Michael says. “It may be the last time I’m up here.”
For six generations, the Martinez family has lived and toiled on land south of the famously therapeutic Pagosa Hot Springs. The area was once ruled and roamed primarily by Southern Utes and Apaches, and the French and Spanish arrived to plunder the surrounding mountains for gold between the 1500s and the American Revolution. Mexico held the land from 1821 until the United States won it in 1848. Then another gold rush—and subsequent tensions between Native American tribes and white settlers—prompted the United States to set up a military camp, Fort Lewis, in 1878.
Jody Martinez’s ancestors settled in Edith, Colorado, more than a century before Barbara, Michael’s mother, moved with her family to the ranch from New Mexico in 1966. The stingy soil didn’t keep Barbara’s father from growing alfalfa, grass, and wheat; his family, like the Martinez clan, always tried to nurture the land and live by a simple credo: You don’t need anything more than what you have, and if you want, you don’t appreciate what you have.
Such a positive outlook belies the family’s many trials, a litany of accidents and setbacks that might make it easy for them to think they’ve done something wrong, that maybe they’re cursed. It may have stemmed from the time Jody’s great-grandfather shot and killed J.M. Archuleta, a member of the county’s namesake family, for stealing the water rights from their land. But that was cowboy justice, a reflection of the times. It didn’t change the fact that for generations, whether a family member was four or 40, the soil would always need tending and the cows, pigs, and chickens would always need to be fed.
The present-day Martinez kids, particularly Michael, always heeded the family work ethic. “Michael never gave [Dad] any trouble,” his sister, Joetta, says. “He always went to pick up eggs a little earlier, dug ditches a little longer, and made sure not to come in until he could say he was done.”
Michael also saw the ranch as a place to train. When he was in second grade, he proclaimed that he’d wrestle for Brands someday, and by his freshman year at Pagosa Springs High School, Michael’s after-school wrestling practice was just a portion of his overall regimen. After the sessions wrapped, he’d jog 14 miles to the ranch, passing ponderosa pines, scrub oaks, and the 30-or-so houses and trailers along the sparsely populated Trujillo Road. There, Jody would be waiting to bring him home for dinner. If Michael had to be home right after practice and didn’t have time to run to the ranch, he’d throw a 20-pound sandbag over his shoulders and jog the six-mile route from school to home. Then he’d throw it on again and run back to school the following morning. The only place Michael wanted a ride to was his next match.
“You can’t be normal,” Janowsky says of wrestlers in general, and of Michael in particular. “Normal people don’t do stuff like that. If you want to reach an elite level, you can’t live a normal life. Normal people seek comfort. This is normal to him, but not for the human species. Wrestling in general is not a comfortable sport. Most people avoid it. Who is going to take it to the greatest extreme? It’s Michael.”
The burn unit’s “tub” is a metal hospital table with six-inch-tall sides. Before each treatment, nurses blanket it with a thick sheet of plastic and spray it with warm water from hoses that hang from the ceiling. Patients are given enough medication to relieve them of pain during the treatment.
The nurses roll Michael into the tub room on a gurney and hoist him into the bath. They use washcloths to gently slough the dead and dying skin from 80 percent of Michael’s body, which staves off infection and allows the skin cells to regenerate. The treatment lasts 45 to 60 minutes once a day, all while the drugged Michael barely knows what’s happening to him.
Barbara and Jody arrive at the hospital after a four-hour drive, just as their son is leaving the tub room for the first time. A nurse ushers the parents to a conference room to prepare them for seeing Michael. His body may be unrecognizable; his skin will be “extremely pink” and wrapped in gauze; only his face, fingertips, and feet will be visible. He’ll be foggy from the drugs. He’ll likely need multiple surgeries. And, if all goes well, Michael will be in the hospital for up to three months—patients typically stay in the unit one day for each percent of their body that was burned. When burn victims die, the nurse explains, it’s more likely from complications during treatment than from the initial trauma, and minimizing infection risk is a priority.
The staff takes Barbara and Jody to Michael’s room, and they pull chairs close to his bed. Michael’s eyes flicker open and slowly scan the room before settling on Jody. Michael takes in a deep breath.
“Dad, I’m so sorry about the RV.”
The next time he wakes, Michael’s in the tub, and he can’t move. His arms and legs are strapped down, and his breath quickens as he fights to free himself. His eyes dart around. Nurses stand over him and work on his inflamed skin. One notices Michael’s accelerated heart rate and rushes to give him more meds. He struggles for a few seconds before falling limp. Later, after the drugs have worn off, he awakens in his bed.
“Dad, I think I woke up,” Michael says. “I think I tried to fight them.”
The nurse who had been administering Michael’s pain medication watches from a corner of the room, her eyes welling, before explaining what happened. “Michael did wake up during the procedure,” she says. “I feel terrible. We have to be careful with how much pain medicine we give the burn patients because if we give them too much, they may not wake up.” The process of administering sedation requires medical professionals to strike a delicate balance between keeping Michael comfortable and ensuring his safety. Barbara nods numbly as she watches her son and hears the nurse explain how Michael’s unusual level of fitness means they’ll have to re-evaluate his medication dosage.
Two days in, Michael’s hands aren’t regrowing skin the way the doctors expected. They schedule a surgery to graft skin from one of his hips, the only salvageable part of his body, onto his hands. Michael has already been pestering the nurses to let him try to walk—he playfully urged his sister and a friend to break him out of the hospital during their first visit—but after the surgery, he doesn’t ask again for a few days. Apart from getting wheeled to and from the tub room, he barely moves at all. Still, each time his mother asks how he’s feeling, the response is the same: “Mom, don’t worry about me. I’m going to be just fine.”
Following the graft surgery, Jody sits with Michael, who has barely enough energy to speak. “Dad, I’m so weak,” he whispers. “Dad, I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this.” Jody begins to reach toward his son, but there’s no place on his body to give him a reassuring pat. He draws back his hand and leans in. “We just need you to rest,” Jody says, teary-eyed behind his glasses.
“But, Dad, if I get out of here, we’re going to go fish more.”
An early benchmark in recovery is making it to the bathroom unassisted. Shortly after the surgery, a nurse proposes a deal: If Michael can scoot to the edge of his bed and stand, she’ll help him walk to the bathroom. Normally the staff has to force burn patients to move because of their fear of pain, but Michael scoots, stands—and sits right back down. “Alright, we’ll try again tomorrow,” the nurse says, smiling. Soon the doctors and nurses start bringing medical students to observe Michael, who’s recovering considerably faster than the typical burn patient.
Almost two weeks after Michael’s arrival, coach Janowsky visits the hospital with his wife, Nyana. They watch as Michael is wheeled out to a shaded, open-air balcony. What makes Michael almost unrecognizable to his longtime coach isn’t his bandages or scars but his hollow, disoriented eyes. “You’re used to seeing this fire and defiance in him,” Janowsky recalls. “It wasn’t there. He was blank.”
During the visit, Michael struggles to pull himself up to a walker, collapsing back into a chair several times.
“Remember when we used to run the cog in Colorado Springs?” says Janowsky, reminding Michael of a grueling training course.
“What’s harder, this or the cog?”
Michael just shakes his head.
Janowsky pulls out his laptop. He wants to show Michael a video of his son’s most recent wrestling match. As soon as the clip starts, Michael leans in. “His eyes lit up,” Janowsky says. “I saw something change. He showed signs of himself.”
The coach’s visit and video seem to revive Michael. By the end of his second week in the burn unit, he’s walking, talking, and acting like someone who’s been there two months. Although the Martinezes don’t realize it, the nurses have been tracking Michael’s requests for pain meds. He’s asking for less and wanting to walk more. Barbara jokes that she’s surprised she hasn’t caught Michael trying to escape out his second-floor window using his burn dressing as a rope.
As much as he’d like to flee, Michael knows the fastest way out is to keep making the 50-foot walk from his room to the tub room on his own. Soon Michael’s body begins to regrow tender layers of skin. He’s using the bathroom unassisted, and the staff has taught his parents the showering procedures, wound care, and re-bandaging they’ll have to do at home. With severe burns over 80 percent of his body, Michael should have been in the hospital for almost three months. He returns home after 21 days.
Michael played football in high school, primarily to stay in shape for wrestling. Before his sophomore season, a bull he was riding kicked him in the jaw. Doctors wired it shut, and he played through it. Then, during his junior year, he suffered a compound ankle fracture. Although doctors told the 112-pounder to look ahead to his senior season and forget about wrestling, Michael made do with a walking cast. For once, he heeded their advice to avoid running and sparring—but he still went heavy on the pull-ups and sit-ups.
Michael’s aunt offered to swap trucks with him until he got the boot off and could operate his stick-shift again. While driving the unfamiliar vehicle, Michael hit a snow patch, drove up an embankment, and flipped over. The 16-year-old climbed out of the window, seemingly unscathed, and began hobbling the five miles toward his grandmother’s house when a woman pulled up.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. But would you mind calling my dad?”
“Son, can I give you a ride? Your head is bleeding pretty bad.” Michael hadn’t noticed the crimson stream rolling down his temple, and he reluctantly accepted the offer.
Two months later, having wrestled an abbreviated season on his broken ankle, Michael won the 3A state championship in the 112-pound weight class. His parents had driven to Denver to watch the tournament at the Pepsi Center after selling a couple of calves to pay for the trip. “That’s their insurance,” Joetta says. “Instead of using that money to pay off bills, they’d go to wrestling meets. That’s what they want to do.”
Martinez now is faced with deciding whether to keep wrestling competitively or to stay closer to home and his parents.
After the 5-3 decision, the medal presentation was about to begin, but Janowsky couldn’t find Michael. When he headed into the tunnel underneath the stands, he saw Michael in his sweats, sprinting back and forth in the tunnel, already training for his senior season. When he saw his coach, he sneered.
“That’s one,” the new state champion said of his title.
The following December, Jody showed up unexpectedly one day at Michael’s wrestling practice. He spoke briefly to Janowsky before leaving, not wanting to interrupt Michael’s workout. After practice, Michael approached his coach.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” the coach said. “Get your stuff.”
“My dad wouldn’t just show up,” Michael said. “Don’t hide it from me.”
“Your house is on fire.”
A turkey fryer had been left on, and the overflowing oil had ignited and the flames engulfed the entire house. It would take the family more than three years and assistance from friends and neighbors to rebuild their home. (Michael’s grandmother’s house also burned down in a subsequent fire caused by a lightning strike.)
None of this compromised Michael’s training. He moved up one weight class and plowed through his senior season. Back at the Pepsi Center for the 2004 state championships, Michael faced Quinten Fuentes from Roosevelt High School, whom he’d beaten relatively easily a year earlier. This time Michael topped Fuentes by a single point. When the final buzzer sounded, Michael jumped off the mat and pumped his fist. He later apologized to his coach for gloating.
Michael’s humility and toughness came naturally, and it came largely from his father. One day in 2001, Michael walked into the Pagosa Springs gym toward the weight room and saw Jody hanging an American flag from a platform near the ceiling. Jody was a longtime janitor at the school, a quiet, humble adult whom students tended to gravitate toward, especially the struggling ones. “My dad trusts people,” Joetta says. “Some of the most troublesome kids in the high school flocked to him because he gave them the trust nobody else would. He knew they had it in them to be good people; he was just the one to give them a chance.”
Michael waved at his dad as he passed through the gym doors toward the weight room. Seconds later, a loud crash sent him sprinting back inside. Jody had fallen almost 25 feet and landed headfirst. After doctors sent him through the X-ray machine (and reluctantly removed Jody’s neck brace after he conned them into believing it was making him claustrophobic), they delivered the diagnosis: a fracture of the C1 and C2 vertebrae, the same injury that paralyzed Christopher Reeve. The doctors told Jody this condition typically meant life in a wheelchair. Three days later, he walked out of the hospital.
Michael always wanted Terry Brands to be his coach. Brands accepted the top job at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2002, and with no college scholarship offers after high school, Michael moved east in 2004. He didn’t enroll at the school; he just wanted to train with Brands for a shot at the Olympics, and he supported himself with a few part-time jobs. Michael followed Brands back to Colorado in 2005 when Brands became the freestyle resident coach for USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs. Michael’s showing in the 2008 Olympic trials earned him a 70 percent scholarship to the University of Wyoming, and Michael made it effectively a full ride by living in his truck for about a year out of the four he spent in Wyoming.
Michael, who studied rangeland ecology and watershed management, was redshirted for the 2006-07 season. The next year, the 21-year-old took an Olympic redshirt year and returned to Colorado Springs to train for Brands and Team USA. Michael traveled to Azerbaijan, Russia, and Ukraine, wrestling the top freestylers in the world and earning a reputation for maniacal perseverance. “He would tie them up, drag them down from the hands, and get them out of position,” Janowsky says. “Then, he’d rush back to the center and get ready. The kids never had time to catch their breath or get advice from their coach.”
This was nothing new to his teammates in Laramie, who were well acquainted with Michael’s competitiveness on mountain training runs. “He hated it if anyone would challenge him,” says Wyoming head coach Mark Branch. “These young kids would come out of the gates and blow by him, but we’d laugh knowing Michael would always finish way ahead by the end.”
Despite a back surgery and multiple spinal procedures as a result of wrestling injuries, Michael qualified for the NCAA tournament every year but never finished higher than the top 12. The injuries were preventing his physical performance from matching his mental intensity. “I’d tell him to take the day off to rest, and he’d just snarl at me,” Branch says. “He was all about just cowboyin’ up.” Even today, Michael doesn’t allow himself to look back on his 116-43 collegiate record with much pride. “I remember the matches I lose,” he says, “not the ones I win.”
One of his toughest defeats came at the Olympic trials in Iowa City, Iowa, in April 2012. After Sam Hazewinkel pinned Michael on his way to making the Olympic team, Hazewinkel was off to London while Michael went back to Pagosa Springs. “It blows my mind. I get so aggravated thinking about that stuff,” Michael says. “I beat numerous guys who have wrestled on Olympic teams, and I have never made it. It just pisses me off. A lot.”
When he returned home from the burn unit, Michael stayed at his parents’ house. Although he needed 24/7 assistance for the first few weeks, he quickly made it his training ground, walking between rooms and occasionally to the back patio, where he could watch his horse, Carheart, grazing in the back pasture.
The doctors had warned Michael that if his skin regrew without him stretching and working his hands, it would become rigid and lose function. Unfortunately, the physical therapist in town had to be paid up front, and Michael didn’t have health insurance. Instead, he picked up his guitar. At first, even simple strumming was excruciating; his burnt fingers dented, then bled, on the fret board. He kept playing, and soon, riffs of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” wafted from his parents’ living room. At his six-week follow-up appointment in Albuquerque, the doctor asked who was doing his physical therapy.
The doctor paused, gazing at Michael’s hands, before he looked up.
“Well, good work.”
The doctor cleared Michael for very easy exercise, so he threw on his sweats and tried to run the half-mile from the house to the highway. After jogging about 100 feet, Michael stopped and vomited. At least now he had a baseline. Within a week, he made it out to the road.
Michael’s medical bills have totaled almost $300,000, a catastrophic sum for someone without health insurance. The tiny community around Pagosa Springs has rallied to help as much as possible—a chili cook-off raised about $4,000—and Michael and his family have been moved by the support they’ve received from people around the country who have learned of his story. Coaches and athletes he once battled on the mat have written with well wishes. A woman he’d never met, a sister of one of Michael’s college teammates, spearheaded the construction of a fund-raising website. In thanks, Michael co-wrote a song with Andy Janowsky, the brother of his old wrestling coach. (While in junior high school, Michael submitted three original songs to a contest in Nashville and declined an offer to have them recorded professionally. “I just wanted to see how good they were,” he says.) “There Are People Who Still Care” talks of small-town life and the accident that made Michael realize how closely surrounded he is by thoughtfulness and concern in such an otherwise remote place.
And from my bed it took my breath away,
tears filled my eyes
All their time, their tears and smiles
had made me realize
The goodness in my fellow man through all
their thoughts and prayers
I was dead wrong, there are people
who still care.
The self-recorded song still plays on regional radio stations.
Wrestling is primal. It can be about trying to dominate others physically, but just as often, it’s about robbing them of their will to fight back. When Michael finished a match in college, Branch could tell the kids and coaches never wanted to wrestle Michael Martinez again. “Win or lose, they were glad to be done,” Branch says. “He would break his opponent mentally because he was relentless.”
By summer 2013, Michael’s own body was healing, if still broken. He spent his days surveying land for a local engineering firm, working his family’s dusty plots, and tending to the animals. Janowsky invited Michael to work as an assistant coach when his regenerating skin was still soft and fragile and the most burned areas of his body remained wrapped in bandages. Slowly, he became more comfortable grappling with the young wrestlers, teaching them everything he’d learned. He started hosting open mat practices at six in the morning. Although the practices weren’t mandatory, most of the teenage athletes showed up anyway.
Today, 28-year-old Michael fills his days with his surveying job, coaching, and training. Some aren’t convinced his competitive wrestling days are over, even though the burns and his old back injuries have made getting health insurance extremely expensive. Terry Brands, now the associate head coach at the University of Iowa, still wants Michael to come help coach his youth team—and to train for a shot at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil. Brands made the same offer in 2011 before Jody’s health issues steered the dutiful son back to Pagosa Springs. Jody suffered some vaguely defined heart issues that year; ever since, he’s tried to resist pushing himself too hard physically—not exactly an innate Martinez trait. Michael is similarly evasive and noncommittal about his future plans, but those closest to him have an idea what he’s thinking. “Of all of us siblings, Michael was the homebody,” Joetta says. “It’s a sense of responsibility and loyalty, and like our dad, he just wants to help people.”
Michael has never formally declined Brands’ offer, and it still stands. The question is, as he recovers from about as traumatic an injury as anyone could endure, possessing that overriding sense of homegrown loyalty and responsibility (but still as competitive as ever): How does Michael want the next chapter of his life to read? Dan Janowsky says he’d understand if Michael moved away, even if it came during the Pagosa Springs wrestling season. “It’s something he thinks about all the time,” Janowsky says. “He is really torn right now. The two things that drive him are his drive to compete and his loyalty to his family.”
That’s why Michael has a call to make. He could go to Iowa to coach, train, and maybe become a champion—if his body holds up. Or he can stay in Pagosa Springs and keep trying to resurrect the parched family ranch. He’d likely settle down and raise a seventh generation of Martinez children on the same harsh but beautiful land he grew up on. He’d continue to work as a surveyor and coach young wrestlers to the state tournament. But every time one of his kids stepped onto the victor’s podium, would his own what-ifs creep in?
Brands says he has little doubt Michael could succeed but understands his internal conflicts. The attraction of home is strong for anyone, particularly if you’re unsure about what will happen to the people you love should you leave. “I know what he is capable of when he puts his mind to something,” Brands says. “When he does decide, it gets done. It doesn’t guarantee he’ll make an Olympic team or win a world championship, but whether it happens is up to him.”
The Pepsi Center reeks of teenage boys. It’s February 20, 2014, and 10 multicolored wrestling mats carpet the Colorado Avs’ ice as hooded wrestlers congregate in packs throughout the arena’s lower seating area. It’s the first round of the state meet. Amid the wrestlers in spandex singlets and coaches in school colors, Michael stands wearing black jeans, a winter hat with the ear flaps tied up, and a charcoal sweatshirt. When asked how he thinks his boys will do this year, he replies, “It’s not that all those other ski kids are wimps, but these farm and ranch boys are just tough. If we wrestle how we are capable of, I think we’ll do alright.”
A junior is the first kid from Pagosa Springs to compete. Michael sits next to Janowsky on a metal folding chair near one corner of the mat, urging his wrestler, “You gotta work!” The kid loses 8-6, sending Michael for a frustrated pace in the tunnel under the stands before he returns to console his student.
Over the next day, most of the Pagosa Springs wrestlers get knocked out—but not Creede Wylie, a heavyweight who now plays football and wrestles for Colorado State University-Pueblo. He wins his way to the state finals, where he’ll meet Centauri High School’s Devon Chacon in the last match of the tournament. At one point, a “parade of champions,” a processional of the two finalists in each weight class, walks through the tunnel and out onto the floor, each wrestler accompanied by the coach of his choice. Wylie picks Michael. After the procession, the pair goes back into the tunnel to spend the next four hours before Wylie’s match running, stretching, shadow wrestling, and talking.
When the match finally arrives, Michael and Janowsky again sit in their folding chairs at the mat’s edge. To honor the occasion, Michael is wearing the only suit in his closet—black with an off-white dress shirt. Just 33 seconds before the end of the first period, Wylie trips Chacon and pins him, the only fall of the entire 3A championship round. As Wylie launches into a Lebron James–inspired victory dance, Michael goes to shake the hand of the defeated kid. Then, rather than join the celebration, Pagosa Springs’ first since 2009, Michael Martinez returns to the Pepsi Center tunnel, takes off his suit jacket, and starts sprinting up and down the halls.
—From top: Courtesy of Barbara Martinez; Courtesy of the author.