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Latina runner Brenda Martinez to race in Rio for the U.S.

After a fall during the 800-meter qualifying race, the daughter of Mexican immigrants qualified for the 1,500-meter run by .03 seconds.
4 Ago 2016 – 11:31 AM EDT
Brenda Martinez, from California, will compete in the 2016 Olympics. Crédito: Getty Images

Brenda Martinez hoped to compete in the 800-meter race at the Rio Olympics. The 28-year-old from California had won that category during the World Outdoor Championships 2013. But on July 4, during the Olympic qualifying race, she tripped over another runner and ended in seventh place.

But Martinez didn’t stop there. She changed course and sought to reach Rio as a 1,500-meter runner. She had just three days to prepare. During that race, Martinez took third place and beat the runner who came in fourth by a margin of 0.03 seconds.

Her dream had come true: She would compete in the 2016 Olympics.This week, Martinez is headed to Rio de Janeiro to represent the United States track & field team.

"I knew I had the potential," the athlete told Univision from California. "It's one of those things that every athlete knows.”

For as long as she can remember, Brenda Martinez wanted to be a world-class runner. She first started running with an after-school track club when she was five.

In California, her parents Andrés and Rosa María, immigrants from Mexico, always supported their daughter. Andrés used his salary as a builder, gardener and plumber to buy Brenda running sneakers, which she used to break track-and-field records at her school. Rosa María sold tamales and cleaned hotels to send Brenda to competitions in Louisiana and Kentucky. She was the first member of her family to attend college, at the University of California, Riverside.

“The idea is always in your head that this effort can pay for college, and that it can even take you to the Olympics,” she said.

Martinez’s first major challenge came in 2010 after graduating from college, where she had excelled as an athlete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

She wanted to join a running group to continue training, so she applied to two elite development clubs. Both rejected her. "They said I was not a champion runner. They closed the door on me," she says.

But she trusted her talent and continued training with the support of her husband, Carlos Handler. Eventually, Martinez found someone who that did see her potential: the famous coach Joe Vigil, who in 2015 received the "Legendary Coach" award from the USA Track & Field Association.

Training with Vigil, Martinez competed in the 2013 International Association of Track and Field Federation World Championships, where she became the first American woman to win a medal in the 800-meter race.

To inspire other young athletes, Martinez helped found the Big Bear Track Club in Big Bear Lake. Olympic athlete Boris Berian is also a member. Martinez also trains girls in a camp and supplies them with sneakers to ensure they can achieve their goals.

"I tell them: 'I am not different from you. It is just a matter of believing in yourselves’,” says the athlete. "I think that success comes from happiness and attitude, and if you can help someone on the way, that is even better."

Brenda Martinez will participate in the women’s 1,500-meter race during the Olympic Games. The first round of this event will be on Friday, August 12, 2016.