CLASS OF 2024: Champion McNary wrestler wants to help other athletes

Minutes before she was to step on to the mat to defend her state wrestling title, Ali Martinez was fighting back tears.

The McNary High School graduate, 18, had already taken home the state trophy as a junior and placed in a national wrestling competition in 2023. Martinez said she’s always been a nervous competitor. She waited in the bathroom, feeling the pressure to win growing.

But to take home her second state win, she had to let that go and focus.

“All these things are running through my head, but then once I get out on the mat and put my ankle bands on, it’s more, ‘Okay, like you gotta lock in and get this done. You can’t lose now,’” she said. 

The match was a challenge, with Martinez’s opponent nearly pinning her after she made a mistake.

“I was on my back, it felt like, for five hours,” she said.

She prevailed, coming back from a tie and pinning her opponent.

“I remember telling my dad right after like I can tell all those extra practices and everything I did. I had that little more drive than she did,” Martinez said.

Martinez is known around McNary for that drive. She also played club flag football and softball, often getting to school for practice at 6 a.m. and not returning home until 8 or 9 p.m.

“She’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to do and more. She puts in the work that’s necessary, she’s extremely coachable, great attitude, treats her teammates with respect,” said Sam Martin, head wrestling coach and English teacher.

The wrestling mat, Martinez said, has been a home away from home, somewhere she feels she can see the result of her hard work.

“What work you put into it is what you get out of it,” she said.

Martin said she’s known as the nicest competitor. She competes in pink headgear with pink laces and glitter nails.

“I don’t think I put my anger or stress ever out on the mat. It was more of like a place where I can be myself and be happy,” she said.

Martinez has taken her love of sports to McNary’s Unified program. It includes a physical education class mixing students with and without disabilities who otherwise often wouldn’t interact during the school day. Student leaders like Martinez help teach sports and facilitate games for their classmates.

The program started her sophomore year as classes resumed in-person from Covid. Martinez said it’s helped the school feel more integrated.

“Everybody knows everyone, it doesn’t feel like we’re separated anymore,” Martinez said. “I feel like I’m just with a whole bunch of friends playing kickball.”

Martinez plans to attend Oregon State University in the fall and study kinesiology. She’s already got a high school anatomy class under her belt and said it was one of her favorites — particularly a field trip to Willamette University’s cadaver lab.

“We got to blow up their lungs and everything. It was pretty cool,” she said.

Martinez said she hopes to play club or intramural sports in college, but won’t pursue more formal athletics.

After confronting several of her own injuries, including a shoulder muscle tear and gallbladder surgery, her aim is to help other athletes as a physical therapist.

“I want to give back and help others who are injured because I’ve been there a lot,” she said. “I kind of know their pain, I can relate to them in a way.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.