Joe Martin's ascent to a prominent role on the N.C. State University swim team has come against such high odds that the team's associate head coach, Woody Woodard, refers to Martin as "our Rudy."
The reference to the biographical movie about the dedication and desperation of a college football player defying the odds to fulfill his dream is well suited to the Wolfpack junior.
A 2008 Concord graduate who swam his first competitive swim meet as a high school sophomore, Martin was twice denied a walk-on roster spot on the N.C. State team before he got an offer this season.
His drive to succeed eventually got coaches' attention, and now Martin is one of the team's top freestylers.
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This week, he'll compete at the ACC Men's Swim Championships in Atlanta.
The son of Bud and Debbie Martin, Joe Martin never participated in a scholastic sport until his 10th-grade year at Concord. His friends persuaded him to join the swim team.
"I thought I'd go hang out with my friends and have fun," he said. "They said no one would get cut."
Because freestyle is the easiest stroke for a beginner to master, Martin excelled in those events from the beginning. Though he admits to having been out of shape at the time, he said getting fit was one of his motives. Martin quickly turned into a regional and state qualifier.
Committed to the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events and the relays with comparable leg lengths, Martin's times dropped like an anchor through his junior and senior years. By the time he graduated, his 200-yard freestyle relay team was a 3A state champion.
Though his introduction to year-round swimming before his senior year led to a string of school, county and regional records, Martin was not recruited out of high school. He enrolled at N.C. State, figuring he might be able to walk onto the swim team.
Martin talked with Woodard, the team's recruiting coordinator, about earning a tryout. But his times weren't quite fast enough for him to gain one of the team's few open roster spots.
Denied a roster spot
Intent on getting another shot the following year, Martin trained on his own and even took a couple of swim courses at the campus aquatic center.
Martin's times were still dropping as he competed for his year-round club team, but Woodard notified him that the Wolfpack would not add any more walk-ons during Martin's sophomore year.
Resigned that his last opportunity to make the varsity team had passed him by, Martin joined the university's club-level team. He got to swim competitively, but his opponents, he said, were so non-competitive that he often won his races by "multiple seconds."
At a club meet at High Point University, a coach who happened to be an N.C. State alumnus recognized Martin. He was so impressed with Martin that he sent an e-mail to Woodard, who already had Martin on his radar.
One of team's best
Woodard offered Martin a tryout last spring, when the varsity season was over. Martin continued to train with the team and on his own through the summer. He was formally awarded a roster spot before this season.
As the Wolfpack approaches the ACC men's championships Feb. 23-26, Martin is well established as one of the team's best freestyle swimmers. His time of 20.72 seconds in the 50-yard sprint is only 0.01 second slower than N.C. State's best.
Martin is a member of the team's top 200-yard freestyle relay squad and also competes in the 400-yard relay.
Because of his late introduction to the program, Martin will still have two more years of NCAA eligibility remaining after this season. As an environmental engineering major, Martin is likely to need those two more years to graduate.
Woodard said most freestylers peak in their mid-20s, which, under that scenario, would be Martin's age range when he's finished with his collegiate swimming.
Competing internationally is certainly a possibility if Martin "can handle the workload," Woodard added.