By Gayne Kalustian
Athletes, from an outside perspective, usually occupy a single dimension in our minds. They’re in uniform, digging their heels in to hold down the one-yard line on fourth and goal, diving to head the ball in off a corner kick, making their way back to the weights to add two more 45s to the rack. They live, they train, they fight on the field. But after a lifetime of basketball and two ACL tears that put her on the bench for nine months apiece, Kaitana Martinez ’16 had to ask herself, “Who am I if not an athlete?”
“There’s a psychological component to recovery. Having the confidence to get back in the game is a challenge,” Martinez said. “Who am I? Because sports won’t last forever. As an incredible as it is, it will come to an end.”
In her time of rehabilitation before coming back to the court wearing the Green and White, Martinez set out to find, she said, the different components of her fluid identity that make her into not only a Division I athlete, but a member of her many communities both at home and in Hanover. Her most recent journey took her to Cusco, Peru, to live with a host family for 10 weeks while working both in a school for 11-15 year olds with special needs and a medical clinic. She chose Peru, she said, because she has been trying to reconnect with her Hispanic roots by gaining a greater mastery over the language.
“I think a lot of life is an identity search, and our family history is a very important part of our identity,” Martinez said. “I have the Martinez last name and the caramel skin, but I don’t have the language. It’s always been something I’ve always been a little confused about. What ethnicity do I check off on applications?”
As an aspiring doctor and neuroscience major, Martinez originally planned to spend the entire stretch in the clinic but agreed after a conversation with the program’s director about the needs of the community to spend eight weeks at the school. The children — dealing with autism across the spectrum, Down syndrome, and various cognitive and physical issues — required as much personal attention as possible. Working with the kids was not a disappointment at all, Martinez said, because though it wasn’t related to medicine, working with kids is one of her primary passions.
The school, with the help of Martinez, focused on teaching life skills such as identifying names, colors and everyday items and their uses such as tooth and hairbrushes. But after all the hours she put in to teaching the students, it’s what she learned from them that resonated with her most.
“The biggest takeaway I got working with the children was all about love and compassion because to those kids, it doesn’t matter what your background is,” Martinez said. “They have no barriers really. And it showed me that compassion really transcends all those barriers of race, gender, religion, socioeconomic background. They just love everyone. It just made me think, ‘Wow everyone should be like kids in that regard.’”
Her interactions outside of the workday brought her no place else but the community courts where she played pick-up basketball with the locals. After playing with a club team at one of the universities, she started training with the team regularly to keep in shape before her return to Dartmouth for her sophomore summer. Being a part of the team, she said, is the best part of playing basketball.
“The game is so technical that there are so many things to learn, but it does no good if you’re an incredible player if your teammates aren’t good,” Martinez said. “The game encourages individuals to get better, but the team setting is the most important thing. Being part of a team for me is what it’s all about. I love that aspect of it. I love having to collaborate to face challenges that you have as a team and to celebrate the successes that we do have. There’s nothing like the sisterhood bond that comes from being on a team like that.”
Over the years, Martinez gained a greater understanding of herself and her role in the community, committing herself to service, basketball and the traits by which the team now operates which they call RAP: respect, attitude and preparation. Martinez recognized what only the best in the business do — her love of sports can serve her and her community on more than just an entertainment level.
“I see sports as a platform for making a difference,” she said. “I think people get too caught up in playing for their own enjoyment because they love the sport, which is great. I agree there’s a personal component that goes with playing the sport. You have to realize two things, though. One, I’m playing to represent my community and my school and two I’m playing to support my teammates and be a leader for them. The purpose becomes so much bigger than yourself.”
Martinez linked up with the organization Find the Courage started by past assistant coach Erin Rewalt. The program uses sports to instill the confidence in kids to grow up and become not only successful athletes, but also well-rounded, thoughtful individuals.
“It’s all about being an example to kids and show what it is to be inclusive, kind and respectful,” Martinez said. “I’m all about that. I think it’s so important for people to feel included and to be built up. There are too many people who are looking to tear others down. [Find the Courage] is willing to give them a hand up and encourage them to build a support system and a sense of community.”
Martinez was selected by head coach Belle Koclanes as the Dartmouth women’s basketball team’s liaison to community service, which, Koclanes said, was one of the easiest decisions she’s made.
“It was a really simple choice,” she stated. “When I first arrived a year ago and finally had the time to connect with my players and learn more about them and what they’re passionate about outside of basketball, it was very clear that KT cares a lot about others and devotes a lot of time to serving others in whatever way possible. We thought, all right, KT is kind of the person to serve our team in that way and keep us in the loop about different opportunities to serve others. We talk a lot about servant leadership on our team, and KT demonstrates that on a daily basis.”
Despite devoting much of her time and effort to pursuits outside of athletics, Martinez still embodies the image of the Division I athlete.
“She has an incredible work ethic and brings that with her to the practice floor, plus is internally motivated. She is determined, day in and day out, to improve, get better and be a positive and encouraging teammate,” Koclanes said.
But in her endless search for all the components of her personality that make her unique, Martinez has become more than just an athlete for the Big Green. She has become a leader in the community — at home and abroad — who will stop at nothing until she has left a positive impact on her home.
“The biggest thing that I realized is, regardless of successes and failures, each one of us is valued,” Martinez said. “For me that comes from someone in the community that is willing to serve others, that is willing to be optimistic and hopeful. I think life can bring you down. There’s always got to be someone that can be a little light and bring things back into perspective. As I go through different life experiences, I want to be that for people because I’ve had amazing people who have been that for me.”