Yancarlos Martinez of the Dominican Republic in action in the 200m (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature San Cristobal, Dominican Republic

Yancarlos Martinez, from baseball player to Olympic-bound sprinter

Yancarlos Martinez may still be a newcomer to the sport, but the former baseball player will head to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with his name already in the record books.

The 23-year-old won the 200m at the recent Ibero-American Championships, which doubled as the official test event for this year’s Olympics, and his winning time of 20.19 established a respectable stadium record for the rest of the world’s top sprinters to aim at when the half-lap event gets underway at the Games on 16 August.

The stadium record may not last beyond the first round, but Martinez himself hopes to go all the way to the final.

Like most boys growing up in the Dominican Republic, Martinez – the third youngest son of four siblings – first took up baseball, the country’s most popular sport, in his hometown of San Cristobal, 25km west of the capital Santo Domingo.

He carved his talent, hoping like many teenagers to make it to the Major League Baseball in the USA. He excelled with his speed as an outfielder and came close to joining an MLB organisation, but one day he was hit in his right wrist during a game and it affected his batting ability.

“At 21 years of age, I felt depressed knowing that my future as a baseball player was over,” said Martinez. “I moved to Santo Domingo for athletics. I trained there during the week and played baseball at home in San Cristobal on the weekends.

“My father wanted me to be a baseball player and he was initially sad because he did not want me to change sports. That’s why I did both during a period of time and kept working hard to help my family financially.”

At just 1.67m (5ft 6in) tall, his build did not impress local coaches and nobody wanted to commit to training him. He then ran into Cuban coach Yaseen Perez, a former sprinter and a guide runner who guided Adrian Iznaga to world and Paralympic medals in the 2000s.

“He was motivated to practice athletics and I told him that we could work together,” recalled Perez of their first encounter early in 2014. “He was jumping over some hurdles in just the second week of training. I was impressed by his natural power. I have rarely seen something like that, so I knew I had an unpolished diamond in front of me.”

In his first official race at a local meeting in June of 2014, Martinez clocked 10.68 into a -2.0m/s headwind. Later that day he improved to 10.60, also into a headwind, to finish second in the final.

A steady progress paved the way for his first international experience at the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games in Mexico in November. He set personal bests of 10.35 and 10.29 to finish fourth in the 100m, just missing the bronze medal by one hundredth of a second. Three days later, he anchored the 4x100m team to a national record of 39.01 for silver.

“I didn’t know much about athletics, I didn’t even know how to lean forward at the finish line,” said Martinez. “I really enjoyed the Games, running the relay and winning silver with a national record.”

Breakthrough and racing Bolt

With a full year of training behind him, Martinez’s progress continued early in 2015. In his first 100m race of the season, he equalled the 22-year-old national record of 10.16. Later that day, he also broke the national 200m record with 20.37.

He went on to set four more national records at the Pan-American Games in Toronto two months later, clocking 10.14 in the 100m, 20.30 and 20.22 in the 200m and 38.67 in the 4x100m.

“It was a great experience being on the same team as Felix Sanchez and Luguelin Santos,” said Martinez, who finished seventh in the 200m in Toronto. “We took some photos together and I realised I could one day become a world-class athlete like them. Running with some of the world’s best athletes convinced me that I could run as fast, or faster, one day.”

Two weeks later, Martinez claimed his first international medal when he finished second in the 200m at the NACAC Senior Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica. “That medal motivated me a lot to keep working hard,” he said.

But an even bigger experience was yet to come.

On his global championships debut at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, Martinez was drawn in the same first-round heats as Usain Bolt in both the 100m and 200m.

“When I started to learn about the sport and got to know the big names like Usain Bolt, you always dream of running against one of them one day,” said Martinez, who went on to finish fourth in the semifinals of the 200m, narrowly missing a spot in the final. “It really made me happy and I had a chance to shake hands with him.”

Indoor debut

The IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 was the next big event on the calendar and Martinez’s coach advised him to try this new experience.

“The 60m is not my favourite, but my coach encouraged me to try it as it would help me learn new things,” said Martinez. “I learned new things about improving my start and the first part of the race. It will definitely help me in 100m and 200m.”

Following three indoor races, where he set and equalled the national indoor 60m record of 6.78, his early season form hinted 2016 could see him get closer to the world’s best.

He ran 20.40 in his first 200m of the year and set a season’s best of 10.15 over 100m in late April. His exploits at the Ibero-American Championships in Rio de Janeiro came two weeks later. On the same day as his 200m victory, he anchored his team to gold in the 4x100m, clocking a national record of 38.52.

After setting a national record of 38.52 in the heats, the Dominican Republic currently occupies one of the 16 qualifying slots for that event at the Olympic Games.

“I went to Brazil feeling a bit tired after a bit of travelling, but I felt fine through all the races,” said Martinez. “In the semifinals I ran the bend fast and then eased off on the home stretch. In the final, I gave it all and was surprised by the 20.19. I am sure I can run faster when I am more rested.

“The Rio track is the best I have ever stepped on. I loved it. I am sure the Games will be very exciting running.

“We have done some great work together,” he added of his 4x100m teammates. “We are confident we can improve further at the Olympics.”

Running fast in the Olympic stadium not only gave Martinez a lot of confidence, it has also opened the door to appearances on the European circuit. He will compete at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Madrid on 23 June and hopes to make his IAAF Diamond League debut at some point this summer.

Returning to Rio

Martinez is happy with his accomplishments, but he remains grounded. “When I train, I focus on executing each part of the race,” he said. “I am not worried about the time. If you do things right, a good time will come up. I finish my races strong, but still need to work on my start.”

His coach believes Martinez has the potential to be among the world’s best.

“He is yet to develop all his capacity,” said Perez. “He is coming from baseball, so the volume is not as intense. We are taking it one step at a time to keep him healthy and to keep him around in the sport for many years.”

And after the initial reluctance about a switch from baseball to athletics, Martinez’s father is now convinced that his son has a future in the sport.

“My mom has supported me in all decisions I have made. My father wanted me to stick to baseball, but he is happy now. He told me, ‘You are a fighter and have made the difference in the family; keep fighting for your dreams’.

“Luguelin (Santos) has given me a lot of advice and he believes I can become the first Dominican to run 100m under 10 seconds,” added Martinez, who loves to play softball and is working on completing his high school diploma when he is not on the track.

Martinez also insists that Perez has been instrumental in his rapid rise.

“He has helped me a lot and is like a second father to me,” said Martinez. “He trusted in my potential and was patient when working with me. He said I could one day run at the Olympic Games.”

That dream will soon become a reality.

Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF