Do not mess with Brenda Martinez. She does not suffer fools or thugs or pretenders, and that's just a short list. The toughness she brings to Drake stadium tonight is just an extension of street skills she learned as a kindergartner.
"There's plenty of trouble to be found in Rancho Cucamonga, which is why Brenda's parents made sure she got to track every day, starting when she was five years old," Carlton Austin recalled.
Austin, an officer with the California Division of Juvenile Justice, was well acquainted with the trouble kids could find in the gritty Los Angeles neighborhood. Thinking track would be a good way to keep neighborhood kids busy after school, he established the West Coast Gazelles track program, which he coached after his day shift. Austin coached Martinez from the time she was five years old through high school. Here's what he remembers about the World 800-meter bronze medalist's early days on the track:
"Brenda's parents worked long hours, two jobs I think, which is why they brought Brenda to track. To keep her out of trouble. They made sure she was there every day. She had a brother and a sister but her parents knew they had something in Brenda. They couldn't afford to send her to music lessons or basketball or whatever; track was all she had. West Coast Gazelles was $15 a month but, you know, not everyone could afford that.
Right from the start she ran everything— 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500. In the fall we did a cross country program. When she was five, Brenda ran 1.3 miles cross country. She was never the best athlete, there were a lot of girls faster, but she had the three Ds — desire, determination, dedication. If anyone was going to beat her, they'd have to do it again and again because she would keep coming back. By the time she was 9, she pretty much always ran 800 and 1500.
Every year, from her first year, Brenda went to the Junior Olympics. She wasn't always the best, as I said, she got beat by other southern California girls, but she showed up and worked hard and was always good enough to qualify for JOs.
The West Coast Gazelles worked out at Rancho Cucamonga High School and, later, I was hired there as the track coach. That's how I coached Brenda all the way through high school. Other high school girls had things on their mind —boys, social stuff — but Brenda had traveled the country already through track. This was what she knew."
Martinez is the top U.S. contender in tonight's 1500-meter at the Drake Relays, but faces stiff competition from Kenya's Hellen Obiri, as well as other U.S. threats, Heather Kampf, Gabe Grunewald, Shannon Rowbury, Morgan Uceny, Treniere Moser and Katie Mackey. Grocery chain Hy-Vee has made it interesting by offering $25,000 for first, $15,000 for second, $10,000 to third place and a pat on the back for fourth. The $50,000 purse makes it the richest 1500-meter race in the world this year.