By SHANNON HEATON
North Florida Matmen
JACKSONVILLE — We see the resume that Isaiah Martinez has built in just two seasons with the University of Illinois and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that he is becoming the face of the sport.
That’s justified, but the young man known colloquially as `IMar’ has the same concerns that a lot of college juniors have: making money, moving his stuff to a temporary storage space, signing a lease for a new apartment, and getting ready for another year of school.
But most college juniors don’t have University World championships to look forward to and NCAA titles to defend. Nor do they get to travel the country to put on clinics, as Martinez made his first-ever trip to Florida this past weekend to serve as lead clinician at the River City Wrestling Factory’s clinic Saturday at Episcopal School of Jacksonville.
“This summer I’ve done eight or nine clinics. Nowhere near as many as last summer,” Martinez said. “This summer I wanted to focus more on freestyle, the international styles, to get ready for (University Worlds).
“I’d done clinics this year in Tennessee and Louisiana, but this was my first summer in the Southeast, first time I’d ever been here. (The timing of it) worked out well because I just got back from training in Colorado Springs and had time to do another clinic, and it was an opportunity to go somewhere I’d never been.”
After winning national titles for the Fighting Illini in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, building off a prep career in which he won three California state titles (noting here that California has a one-class system for wrestling), Martinez has become something he never expected to be when he began wrestling at age 4: an ambassador for the sport.
“What I’m seeing when I go to places outside California, or Pennsylvania, or Ohio or Illinois, is not a lack of talent,” Martinez said. “But there is a lack of wrestling culture. Kids don’t grow up like me wrestling at a very young age. Kids in high school don’t go to duals. In those (other) states, the stigmas of wrestling aren’t as apparent.”
They were not apparent on Saturday at Episcopal in what was undoubtedly one of, if not the most, successful clinics contested within the city. Between 70 and 80 campers — most of them high school-age but a few younger kids as well — came out for the clinic, and a lot of them lingered well after the camp’s conclusion for selfies, some personal time and encouragement from one of the USA’s best and a certain Olympic hopeful for 2020.
Campers from as far as Coconut Creek HS in Miami, from Brandon, from Arnold HS in the Panhandle, and a handful of kids from central Florida joined the mostly-local audience. Several north Florida coaches served as volunteer helpers as well.
“It’s unprecedented, the things I’ve been able to experience. The moments have been incredible. Now that I can be, I guess, an ambassador for the sport, I’ll just roll with it,” Martinez said. “Just try to be the best ambassador I can be.”
It’s a formula that has brought Martinez nothing but success thus far in his career, and where possible to echo it, is a formula that the campers Saturday can use to their own advantage — and by extension the sport’s culture — as well.