HEALTH & FITNESS 2013 - Taking Recovery to National Dance Fame
How J.R. Martinez beat crippling injury, slimmed down and won Dancing With the Stars.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
A funny thing happened to J.R. Martinez on the way home from the burn unit.
“I got heavy,” Martinez says. “When you’re a burn patient, your metabolism gets thrown out of whack. You’re in recovery and the doctors are pushing you to eat to get calories in your body. They encourage you to eat.”
Martinez had survived a chaotic childhood, a stint in the U.S. Army, a roadside bomb in Iraq and 33 surgeries to mitigate the severe burns that disfigured him less than a month into his overseas deployment in 2003. He had survived long enough, in fact, to receive a medical discharge from the Army and celebrate his freedom with friends at a beachside resort in Mexico.
But when it came time to take off his shirt and relax on the shore, he couldn’t bring himself to do it – and it had nothing to do with the burns that covered 34 percent of his body.
“I was 240 pounds when I got out of the hospital,” he says, “and that’s 60 pounds over what I normally weigh.”
Martinez says his behavior at the beach didn’t even register at the time. But when he returned home to Georgia and realized he was the only one of the group to have kept his shirt on, the former high-school athlete – the guy who says he was once able to eat anything he wanted, as much as he wanted – knew something had to change.
“I said, ‘I’m going to transform,’” Martinez recalls. “And I went hard core.”
Martinez broke into acting with small roles on Army Wives and the soap opera All My Children. But many will recognize him as the winner (with dance partner Karina Smirnoff) of the 13th season of Dancing With the Stars, wherein Martinez beat a Kardashian (Rob), a Lake (Ricki) and a Bono (transgender activist Chaz), as well as eight other celebs to take the top prize.
He and Smirnoff did a high-energy jitterbug in week two of the competition, set to “Jump, Jive and Wail. “She made the choreography really hard,” he says on a YouTube video of their preparation. His enormous grin throughout the dance is as infectious as the music.
He tells of his transformation in his recently released memoir, Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit, written with Alexandra Rockey Fleming. Currently on a nationwide speaking tour in support of the book, he is scheduled to give the keynote address Jan. 17 at the annual meeting of the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula’s foundation.
Martinez was 19 when he joined the Army in 2002, the son of a single mom from El Salvador who usually worked two jobs to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. His mom’s good cooking was one of the places the transformation began. She had learned to cook Italian food by way of working in an Italian restaurant, and learned to fry everything by way of settling in the South – first Louisiana, then Arkansas.
He told her the spaghetti, lasagna, fried chicken and fried rice had to go. So did the cakes and the pupusas, the Salvadoran treat made of two thick corn tortillas stuffed with meats, beans or soft cheeses and griddled to a crisp.
“I said to her, ‘I’m going to stop eating this way. If you’re going to keep cooking for me, it has to be a different way,’” Martinez says. “I limited things, I ate smartly and focused on lean meat and grilled vegetables, and at 6:30pm every night, the kitchen was closed.”
In four months, he dropped to 200 pounds.
In changing his diet, though, Martinez found he needed to change the way he worked out as well. The burns that changed his face (“People had admired my looks all my life,” he writes) also changed the way his hands functioned. Gripping heavy weights was impossible. Sit-ups were also difficult because surgeons had cut open his stomach during one of his many surgeries, and his stomach muscles were weak.
He got a membership at a small gym in Georgia. A trainer there set him on an elliptical regimen, doing intervals and keeping his heart rate above 160 for the whole workout. He would work out at the gym, go home covered in sweat and eat a healthy snack or drink a protein shake. At night, he would go for slow jogs through his hilly neighborhood.
“I had to keep it simple because I knew I had to get down to a place where I was getting stronger and lighter,” Martinez says. “I still can’t do heavy weights because my hands cramp, so I have to be strategic in what I do.”
His running evolved to the point that Martinez trained for and planned to run in the New York City marathon. The race was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy. For Christmas, his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez-Jones, bought him a road bike; he’s been riding about 30 miles a day when he’s not traveling for the book or speaking engagements.
“I got a little out of shape from traveling so much. Every day I was in a brand new place and my hours were so random,” he says. “But my resolution is to get back into it.”
Martinez says it all comes down to control, and the realization that with so many things he can’t control, what he puts in his mouth and how and when he moves his body matter most.
“I can’t control what happened to me. I can’t control the scars. But I can control my health and fitness and taking the right steps in living a healthy life,” he says. “That’s going to help me feel more secure and confident with myself. When I lost the weight, I was more vibrant and alive, and there was a shift in my confidence. Those are the things that keep me motivated.”
J.R. MARTINEZ speaks at the annual meeting of the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation 11:30am-2pm Thursday, Jan. 17, at Monterey Conference Center, Monterey. $35 for lunch and program. 625-4506. For more about Martinez, visit http://jrmartinez.com