WINDERMERE — Here’s the first thing you need to know about Franco Martins: In the world of varsity running in the state of Florida, the kid is a star.
Sharrod Williams, who coaches the track and cross-country programs at Windermere Prep, readily admits that — in the context of cross-country and track — the first thing people associate with Windermere Prep is that it’s the school for which Martins runs.
“He’s a superstar when we go to cross-country events — it’s crazy,” Williams said. “We went to the state meet (for cross country) this year … we’re running around the FSU course and people are like, ‘There’s Franco!’ A guy ran with him (during practice) for two laps just so his sister could take a picture of him running with Franco — it’s that serious.”
The second thing you need to know about Franco Martins is that, from his demeanor, you’d never know about his celebrity within the running community.
“He’s the best kid — I mean, it’s so genuine with him,” Williams said, noting that his star athlete also may be the “goofiest kid” on the team.
Martins’ unassuming nature is why it’s no surprise that, when a sixth-grader from Martins’ native Brazil enrolled at Windermere Prep, he readily took the youngster under his wing during cross-country season.
“He’s kind of like my idol,” said Kaio Valle, who has been in the country since August. “Every time someone asks me, ‘Oh Kaio, who’s your favorite runner?’ I always say, ‘I want to be like Franco Martins.’ He was really cool to me and helped me a lot.”
On May 1 in Jacksonville, Martins concluded his decorated prep career at the FHSAA Track & Field Finals by winning first place in the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters. But for Martins, those weren’t the highlights of the meet.
Martins, who will be competing for Brown University on an athletic scholarship in the fall, was far more excited about the bronze medal he won with the Lakers’ 4x400 meter relay team alongside Mathews Peres, Chris Granjean and Michael Stones.
“I often find myself running alone here, around the area, all by myself,” Martins said, explaining why the medal in a race he doesn’t even ordinarily compete in meant so much. “It’s nice to go out there with a team and have all those parts working simultaneously, and when they all come together, it’s just a great feeling.”
A TENNIS STAR HE WAS NOT
Coming from Brazil, Martins, of course, took a liking to soccer.
As a youth and into high school, he played the beautiful game, as well as tennis. Running was something Martins recalls doing for fun, participating in 5Ks with his father.
It was on the soccer field, though, that Martins made a couple of key realizations about his athletic gifts. He realized he wasn’t extraordinarily quick; as a defender, offensive players often beat him. He also came to realize, though, that he thrived in the second half, when the other players were tired and his endurance kicked in.
Still, during his freshman and sophomore years at Windermere Prep, he placed running behind soccer and tennis — with the busy schedule taking its toll on his body.
“Every time I got healthy, I got a different injury,” Martins said.
Martins hardly trained for cross-country or track back then. It was eye-opening then, when during his sophomore year — the first year that the Lakers’ fledgling program competed in district and FHSAA competition — made it all the way to the state meet in cross country and placed 27th.
“I was like, ‘I play tennis every day, and I can’t even win a tournament, and then I come out here, barely run, and I do well,’” Martins said. “That success is kind of something that triggered me to be like, ‘OK, next year I’m going to dedicate myself (to running).’”
It proved to be a good choice.
Martins’ junior year would become his breakout year, with the Lakers standout winning the first of two individual cross-country state titles and the first of four individual track championships.
His success led to recognition, and this past fall he also reached the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland after running a blistering 14:59.2 at the Southeast Regional in Cary, North Carolina.
“It’s crazy — at the start of my junior year, I never had these aspirations,” Martins said. “Being able to see myself progress, and not only compete with these guys (he had looked up to), but actually beat some of them, is insane.”
All eyes were on Martins entering his senior year this past fall — those of the running community and, perhaps just as importantly, those of his teammates.
As the star runner for Windermere Prep, the senior was also a role model for younger runners in the program, like Valle.
“He’s a really good leader — he’s always helping people out when they don’t understand something,” Valle said. “I’ve noticed that usually he does more than what Coach asks him to do.”
Looking back, Martins acknowledges that leading by example could be taxing at times but that it was also worth it.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, because I know they watch how I act in practice and how I compete and how I prepare myself for meets,” Martins said. “(But) it’s great to see the success all these kids are having around me.”
Sitting on the campus of Windermere Prep with the state meet behind him, Martins is relieved. With just a few exams left, one of the busiest stretches of his life — a combination of preparing for exams, graduation and the pursuit that led to his most recent state championships — is nearing an end.
With an academic and athletic career awaiting him at an Ivy League school, Martins is excited to get on campus and meet his new teammates. And, although his teammates and coaches here in West Orange County are sad to see him go, it’s also an exciting time for Windermere Prep as, whatever future success Martins may have, he will be representing his soon-to-be alma mater and community.
“Brown, their track team and cross-country team, are getting a steal,” Williams said. “School-wise, you’re getting somebody who is going to really come out and impact the campus. Their team is getting a steal because he’s just scratched the surface.
“Those guys are running like 80, 90 miles a week; Franco’s only doing like 35, 40 miles a week just because we’re trying to keep him injury-free. … He’s going to get there, they’re going to increase his mileage, and he’s just going to be fantastic.”
In a moment of reflection, Martins, while excited for what is ahead for him, is equally excited for what’s in store for the program he is leaving in the hands of underclassmen and youngsters such as Valle.
“I hope that I’ve been able to influence Kaio, and I hope that he has the same mentality and wants to just build our program,” Martins said. “In the future, I want to come back to the school and for us to have a legacy of being runners — and I hope that I was some sort of catalyst to the beginning of that.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].