Let others find their role models in the sports pages; James Mart�nez sees his in a terra-cotta pot. "The cactus," says the 30-year-old lightweight sculler, holding up a six-inch example in his apartment in Augusta, "is the perfect model of efficiency. It doesn't take much water, but it's strong, and when it blooms, it is as beautiful as anything. I want to be the most efficient person in the world, to waste as little as possible, to get the most out of the least—like the cactus I just hope I'm not as prickly."
However else he may resemble his desert plant, the 6'2", 155-pound Mart�nez is one of nature's most sharply defined creations. In just six years of rowing he has gone from a mere novice to the top lightweight sculler in the world last year and third in the U.S. in the open-weight single sculls—an achievement not unlike that of a Class A baseball player going straight to the majors in one season.
Mart�nez attributes his rapid rise, in part, to two things: a religious faith so deep that he leaves every rowing medal he wins at the foot of a statue of St. Joseph, and an excruciatingly healthy, environmentally virtuous existence that few could embrace. Among the many things Mart�nez has sworn off for health or environmental reasons are what he calls the "three C's," which are otherwise recognizable as the building blocks of the American lifestyle: cars, corn syrup and cable TV. James and his wife, Elizabeth, haven't owned a car for three years, and when he walks, bikes or runs, he wears recycled cotton-and-rubber shoes. As if that weren't enough sacrifice for the good of the planet, he also washes his infant daughter's cloth diapers by hand, on a washboard. "It helps me work on my stroke," he says cheerfully. "And you know what? It's actually fun."
Mart�nez follows each diaper change with 20 sit-ups, and he has already sketched plans for a contraption that will swing three-month-old Sierra Maria Mart�nez in front of him as he works out on a rowing machine. "Because there is so little financial support for rowers in this country, people think your career is finished as soon as you get married and have kids," says Mart�nez, who is now training full time with the national team in Augusta. "But this baby is going to help me get stronger."
Sierra Mar�a's infancy promises to be unusual in many ways. In an effort to minimize what he calls the "photographic process," which, he has read, contributes "40 to 60 percent of the chemical toxic waste in our country," James will send out baptism announcements accompanied by a drawing of the baby rather than a photo. "I wish I could ask people to check all cameras at the door when they come to see her," he adds wistfully, "but I guess that would be a little harsh for the grandparents."
It's just as well that Mart�nez isn't crazy about collecting photographs, because his preferred method of environmentally correct long-distance travel—Amtrak—often gets him to rowing events too late for the team picture. When forced to fly, as he was last summer for a regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, Mart�nez calculates the number of trees required to absorb the CO created by the plane's flight—"It takes one adult tree approximately a year to absorb the carbon-dioxide created by the burning of one gallon of gas," he says, referring to a tidbit he picked up in the Toronto Star—divides by the number of estimated passengers (factoring in baggage and freight) and then plants that number of trees before he flies. His trip to Lucerne resulted in 105 new green ash, oak and pine trees in the Washington, D.C., area, which was where James and Elizabeth were living last summer.
"I did pretty well in Lucerne—fourth place—even though my back was sore from all that planting," Mart�nez says. "Can you imagine me in a crew? 'Excuse me guys, I can't take a plane,' and 'I must plant trees,' and 'I have to go to Mass every Sunday.' I am a burden to my teammates, I know that. But these things are important to me."
Mart�nez hasn't always had this fierce environmental commitment, and unlike most oarsmen on the national team, he didn't row in college. After graduating from Stanford in 1988 with a degree in mechanical fluids engineering, Mart�nez, a former Santa Fe High tennis standout (who, unlike each of his five siblings, did not win a New Mexico state title), was looking for a new athletic outlet when he watched Ann Marden's come-from-behind silver medal performance in the single sculls at the 1988 Olympics. "It was such an inspirational performance that I wrote her a letter," says Mart�nez, who included silver confetti in the envelope.
Marden wrote back, challenging Martinez to try rowing at a center in Long Beach, Calif., about 45 miles from his engineering job in Canoga Park. Mart�nez took the bait, making the daily traffic-choked three-hour round trip to Long Beach by—gasp—car. "At the time, I was the most environmentally destructive creature on earth," he says, wincing at the memory. That changed in April 1989, when he met Elizabeth Fiering, then a student at UC Santa Barbara and now an environmental consultant. During many heated debates, she convinced the newly minted engineer that the solution to environmental problems was not in technological fixes but in behavioral changes.
"Being on the water all the time, I started to see 'fixes' like drainage pipes in Long Beach Harbour that weren't solving anything," he says. "Slowly, I came around to her point of view." Eight months after getting married, in November 1991, the two got rid of their car and soon began avoiding other mechanical conveyances such as elevators and escalators. While working at an engineering firm in Washington between 1991 and late '94, Mart�nez took the stairs to his 17th-floor office about four times a day. "People would freak out when I did that, but it's not that big a deal," he says. "I was actually doing the simpler thing—an elevator is much more complicated than stairs." Not surprisingly, the extra legwork dramatically improved Mart�nez's strength and speed. He made the national team in 1993, just four years after first setting foot in a scull.