There was a time in Ray Martin’s life when he dreamed of becoming a basketball player. Martin loved basketball and loved watching the New York Knicks.
But fate wasn’t kind to Ray. He wasn’t ever going to play basketball, because he was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a rare form of congenital myopathy and the most severe form of arthrogryposis.
The disease left Martin without full use of his hands, and he didn’t have use of his legs; he would live life in a wheelchair.
“When I was little, I let it bother me,” Martin said. “But as I got older, I learned to accept it. I just don’t think about it anymore.”
Martin loved sports and watched them religiously. But how could he participate in sports in a wheelchair? It seemed impossible.
When Martin became a student at Jersey City’s A. Harry Moore School for the disabled, he learned that he could do something in his wheelchair: compete in track and field.
“They had a track team at A. Harry Moore,” Martin said. “So that’s when I started.”
But soon after he entered A. Harry Moore, he learned that he was transferring to a traditional grade school: P.S. 34 in Jersey City.
“I liked going to regular classes, but I still wanted to do track,” Martin said. He also had to learn how to push the wheelchair, because he had very limited use of his hands.
“That was a problem,” Martin said. “I couldn’t use my hands. I had several surgeries on my hands, but they couldn’t fit in gloves.”
Just to compete, Martin had his crooked hands wrapped in two pairs of socks and had the socks taped around his wrists in order to push the wheelchair hard enough to make it move faster.
“Eventually, my hands got bigger and stronger,” Martin said.
Still, the image of a boy strapped to a wheelchair, wearing socks as protection to push the chair, is startling. But Martin had a dream and a goal.
“I wanted to be able to do what other people did in track,” Martin said. “I knew I couldn’t run like everyone else, but I should be able to push my chair fast enough. There was nothing that was going to stop me.”
In fact, Martin and his father, Daniel, formed a team of athletes in wheelchairs. The team is called the United Spinal Navigators, a group of about eight wheelchair athletes. The group, which has regular practice sessions in Bayonne County Park, goes to events all over the world.
Yes, the world.
Ray Martin is a world traveler. There aren’t many Jersey City teens who can lay claim to that. Martin has been to Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He’s competed in the World Junior Disability Championships. He has also competed nationwide and holds several national records in disability competitions.
Martin has to train just as hard—harder in fact—than most able-bodied athletes. Now at the University of Illinois, he participates in a track-and-field program strictly for disabled athletes. When the time comes for an event, Martin has to get his workout mileage in.
“The warm-up is about four miles,” Martin said. “It gets pretty tough.”
Four miles? In a wheelchair? That’s not exactly a walk in the park. But that’s nothing compared to what he accomplished in the fall. He competed in the Chicago Marathon in October and finished the 26-mile race in a little more than two hours. That’s called motoring.
Before that race in Chicago, Martin traveled across the pond to compete in the Paralympics in London, a week after the regular Olympics were held. He was able to compete on the same track as his favorite athlete, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, who won the gold medal.
“It was just an unreal experience,” Martin said. “It was the chance of a lifetime. I was so excited. Honestly, I was just going for the experience. I didn’t have higher goals. There were a couple of races that I never did before, so I wasn’t expecting much.”
But Martin did better than expected. He won four gold medals at the International Paralympics, winning the 100, 200, 400, and 800-meter dashes.
“It was just completely incredible,” Martin said. “To be able to do that for my country, to hear the National Anthem and see the American flag being raised was unbelievable. It was also so cool. I first won the 100 and having that feeling really motivated me, especially since the 100 is my worst event. I was definitely more focused for the next event.”
Martin said that the 400-meter dash was “the turning point.”
“My best competition came from a guy from Japan, but I knew I could beat him,” Martin said. “He was the holder of the world record. But after winning the first one, I was really excited. After I had two, I didn’t worry about the next race. Whatever happened from that point was nice.”
Martin completed his incredible journey in London with two more gold-medal performances in the 200-meter and 800-meter dashes.
“I never could have dreamed that,” he said.
He went right from London to the University of Illinois, where he’s studying kinesiology, the study of human movement.
“I’d like to become an occupational therapist,” Martin said.
He’s busy training with the University of Illinois disability track team.
“We train all year round,” Martin said. “The track season starts in May, so I have to be ready. I’ve been competing in road races and marathons to get ready for the track meets.”
Martin’s time of two hours, six minutes at the Chicago Marathon has qualified him to compete in the Boston Marathon in April.
Martin is truly now a track athlete, the ones who race against the clock and motivate themselves against their own times, just to see improvement.
“Every day, I’m thankful to get the opportunity to be out there competing,” Martin said. “I’m able to go to other countries, and I’m still able to compete. I get on my track chair every day and do something. It keeps me going.”
He and his trusty custom-made chair have come a long way.
“I think about how far I’ve come every once in a while,” Martin said. “At one point in my life, I never thought I could compete in national meets or the Paralympics. When I first started, I did it for fun. I never thought it would come to this.”
Martin was named 2012 Paralympic Sportsman of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee and was a finalist for ESPN’s Athlete with a Disability at the network’s annual ESPY awards. He is also raising money to support the New York and New Jersey Paralympic Sport Clubs, the group that helped him become a world-class paralympian. He has been working with British Petroleum to be the face of a BP program that will help local clubs, like Martin’s North Jersey Navigators. Proceeds will fund scholarships and new equipment, encourage participation, and train coaches.
Maybe a young boy or girl who uses a wheelchair is now getting a chance to see the marvel that is Ray Martin. Maybe he or she will be motivated to give track and field for the disabled a try, much like Martin did when he was just five years old.
“It’s nice that people look up to me,” Martin said. “I do my best to be a positive role model.”
Maybe five years ago, the graduating class at P.S. 34 in Jersey City knew what they were doing when they voted Ray Martin the best role model in the class. He lives up to that billing every time he takes his chair to the track.—JCM