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Beyond the Podium: The True Meaning Behind a Medal

Martin approaching the finish line at 2022 Fall Games

“Try, try again, get back up, and make sure that you go for it.” 

As we enter a new year, these words shared by Special Olympics Michigan athlete, Jessica Martin, will be words I will live by moving forward. The 29-year-old uses her life philosophy daily to motivate herself and her peers. 

I first met Martin standing on the awards podium, anxiously waiting to hear how she placed at the Cycling Finals for the 2022 State Fall Games. If you’re like me, there are few (if any!) greater joys in life than watching a Special Olympics Athlete’s reaction to being awarded a medal. I have had the pleasure of watching this happen countless times throughout my SOMI tenure. It never gets old. However, it was only a few weeks ago when I first asked myself: What is that moment like for our athletes? 

My question was prompted when I watched Martin collapse, weeping tears of joy, disbelief, and pride when her name was announced as a gold medal winner. The reaction was one so raw, so genuine, all of us around her were moved to tears. 

“It was quite a rush,” Martin told me about the feeling of crossing the finish line on her bike at Fall Games. “It felt so wonderful. I was grateful to have everyone there. I had never done cycling before.” 

I’d never met Jessica before that moment, but I rushed to hug her, one in a long line eager to celebrate her accomplishment. “I can’t believe it,” Martin said with her arms wrapped around me, tears still flowing. “This is my first one!” 

Shortly after, I watched Martin win a second gold medal. This time her reaction was more emotional than the first. I left that day feeling appreciative that I had a chance to witness a moment that changed Jessica’s life – and those around her – for the better. 

I reached out to Martin a few days later, eager to learn more about her experience. Based on her response following her cycling events, I assumed she was new to the SOMI family, experiencing a win for the first time. 

As our athletes often do, Martin surprised me. The Romulus-based athlete has been involved with Special Olympics for more than a decade. She regularly participates in poly hockey, bocce, bowling, basketball, and golf. As for winning that first medal? Hardly her first one, as she has dozens dangling proudly from a set of hooks on the wall of her living room. 

In 2022, Martin, an avid golfer, traded in her favorite sport to give cycling a try. “I golfed last year. This year, I wanted to encourage myself to do something new,” Martin reflected on pushing herself outside of her comfort zone. 

“I work hard so I can leave behind a legacy,” Martin expanded on trying a sport she was intimated by and had limited experience with. “I want everyone to be involved and for this to continue for generations to come.” When she challenged herself to try cycling, she never expected to medal - her goal was simply to finish. “I was surprised and excited, everyone was proud of me,” Martin said on her two first-place victories. 

Martin was born with Cerebral Palsy. At the time, the doctors set low expectations for her parents, telling them she wouldn’t be able to do much. “Jessica didn’t walk until she was two and a half, she didn’t talk until she was five,” said mom, Lilli Martin. As a parent, Lilli wasn’t discouraged by these milestones. “She has always known exactly what she wanted to do, where she wanted to be, and what she wanted out of life.”

In addition to competing with Special Olympics, Martin works full-time for Amazon in the Detroit area. She loves to read, snuggle with her two chihuahuas (Rosa & Bella), and is committed to leading a healthy and active lifestyle, walking a minimum of two miles a day. 

“I want to (cycle) a longer distance next year,” Martin said, already planning to cycle at the 2023 Fall Games. “It will be a good experience for me. I never stop sports for anything.” 

As we enter 2023, I challenge you to see the world just as Martin does. Look beyond the podium. As with her gold medal, let every accomplishment feel like your first, challenge yourself to take on something new, even if you’re intimidated, and don’t be don’t let setbacks set you back. Martin said it best: make sure that you go for it.

Written By: Lourin Sprenger, Special Olympics Michigan Staff