Jim Martinson has had no legs since being wounded in Vietnam in 1968 but that has never seemed to be an obstacle for him.
It’s not like Jim Martinson sets out to be a role model.
He’s just living life the only way he knows how — going full-bore, always looking for the next challenge. There is always another mountain to climb for the 63-year-old from Puyallup.
Literally, in his case.
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Martinson has had no legs since being wounded in Vietnam in 1968 but that has never seemed to be an obstacle for him. He has won the Boston Marathon, captured gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, and last year became the oldest athlete in the history of Winter X Games.
“I had seven people come up to me at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver and say, ‘I wanted to thank you. You’re the guy who changed my life and made me do this,’ ” said Martinson, who exudes energy as he speaks. “I didn’t know I could change your life. I don’t even know how to do it.”
He does it just by being himself.
Martinson broke three bones while competing in Mono Skiing in the Winter X Games in January, but he is never slowed for long. He took up golf within the past year and won three track events and hand cycling last month in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Denver against competitors decades younger.
And now Martinson has his sights on mountain climbing with the use of a hand cycle.
“I would at least like to go up to Camp Muir,” Martinson said, referring to the base camp at Mount Rainier.
Said Pepper Roberts, who has worked with wounded veterans for years at disabled-accessible American Lake Golf Course in Lakewood: “He’s an inspiration to all those guys. He did not worry about what he couldn’t do; he looked for what he could do. And that’s what he expresses. He tells them, ‘We can do anything they can do, we might just have to do it differently.’ “
Martinson, who was a junior linebacker on Sumner’s 1965 state championship team, was going to play football at Yakima Valley Community College. But he changed his mind, and after a quarter, headed to Sun Valley, Idaho, with dreams of being a ski racer.
Those dreams were halted by a draft notice in 1967. On June 29, 1968, he was in Vietnam, having just been promoted to sergeant. Of the moment that changed his life, he remembers “every inch of it.”
Martinson and part of his squadron were running up a hill to resupply a helicopter.
“I went up and started jogging and someone tripped a Bouncing Betty land mine,” he said. “It’s triggered to shoot up and then out. It’s meant to hurt people.”
Martinson went flying through the air backward. His head was throbbing and his ears ringing, and then he saw his right index finger.
“It was just hanging there by a piece of flesh,” he said. “So I am laying there, looking at it, and I panicked. ‘I need a medic, I need a medic.’ But I looked around and there were people lying all over, so I tried to get up, but I just collapsed right on the ground. One leg was pretty much gone and the other one was cut right behind the knee and severed my artery.”
Martinson remembers a friend putting tourniquets on both legs. He was transferred to Japan, where he was in an induced-comatose state for several days. When he awoke on July 4, his legs were gone. Even then, he had a positive attitude.
“I am just kind of like this person that goes, ‘Well, now what?’ ” Martinson said.
The immediate answer was a year in the hospital, much of it at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma.
“Even then, I wanted to get out and do something,” he said. “I wanted to get out of bed. It took awhile, but when I got up, I was always motivating everyone there at the hospital, saying, ‘Let’s do some races in the hall.’ So we would get in the wheelchairs and race down the halls.
“I was always motivated, but as far as knowing what to do, I had no clue.”
The sporting life
After a transition period that included partying, Martinson got degrees from Green River Community College and Multnomah Bible College in Portland.
Some friends in the mid-1970s asked Martinson to play wheelchair basketball, and that got him thinking about running. He challenged the kids he was working with in his role as a youth minister — the goal was to compete in the 12-kilometer Sound to Narrows race.
“We started training and the kids quit,” he said. “But I’m still training, training, training (in the wheelchair). Pretty soon, I’m up to a mile, then two miles and three and so on. I did the Sound to Narrows, and the bug bit me.”
It bit him hard. He won the Boston Marathon wheelchair division in 1981 and finished second three times. He won track gold medals at the Paralympics in 1980 and 1984, and his highlight was participating at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He competed in an exhibition 1,500-meter wheelchair event.
“We got to live in the village along with Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, Mary Decker and all the others,” he said. “We got onto the track for our event just as Carl Lewis and the others in the 100 were leaving. There were 88,000 people there, chanting ‘USA, USA.’ “
Despite being the top seed, he finished last because of equipment issues to his wheelchair, something that bugs him to this day.
But Martinson never stays down for long. There are too many challenges ahead. His wife, Colleen, gave him one last year. She wanted him to compete in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, even though he had quit competing in 2000.
“I said, all right, I’ll do it,” he sighed.
He not only did it, he won the 200, 400 and 800, and he added four more golds this summer after Colleen challenged him again.
A need for invention
After qualifying for his first Boston Marathon in a bulky 55-pound wheelchair, Martinson designed one that weighed about 26 pounds and was perfectly suited for racing.
Martinson won at Boston in a wheelchair he made, one that was much better for racing than any in the marketplace. Soon, making chairs for disabled athletes became Martinson’s business.
His inspiration for creating the mono ski came in the early 1980s when he was tired of sitting at the lodge while the rest of his family hit the slopes at Crystal Mountain.
Soon he returned to the slopes in his custom-built skis, and in 1992 he won downhill skiing gold at the Winter Paralympics in Albertville, France.
“Who would have ever guessed I would have come back to skiing?” said Martinson, who sold his company to Sunrise Medical in 1992 and continued working there until 2000. “I am better skiing sitting down than I was standing up.”
A full life
Martinson said he doesn’t feel like he’s disabled. He often jokes, “They say you’re as old as your legs. Well, I lost mine when I was 21.” He marvels that he went from a good athlete while he had his legs to a world-class athlete after losing them.
He’s convinced his life has been more full without legs. That alone makes him a role model.
“I tell people all the time, you basically get a chance to start over,” he said. “You just have to have that mentality that you can spend the rest of your life doing whatever you want.”
Martinson still delivers his message to groups, and chats with recently wounded soldiers at American Lake Veteran Golf Course.
“At first, they felt sorry for me,” Martinson said of the active soldiers. “Now, they tease me. It’s like, ‘He can take care of himself.’ “
Martinson wouldn’t want it any other way.