From the moment Jonah Martinez hit the water in the seventh grade, he found a haven in the pool.
It’s been the perfect place for the Cape Coral High senior, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD at a young age, to block out distraction, focus, compete and recharge.
He developed as an athlete, winning numerous races from his freshman to junior years, including the LCAC and District 2A-10 titles in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2015 and being named one of three finalists for The News-Press’ All-Area Swimmer of the Year award.
He’s on pace to qualify for at least two races at the Class 2A swimming championships for the fourth straight season.
But it’s also been a current that’s given Martinez, 17, stability in the places where he most needs it. Not only has he learned how to maneuver around the daily intricacies of life, but he’s also become a captain and respected leader for the Seahawks swimming team.
“Jonah was always one of those kids you could look at and say he had a lot of potential,” Cape Coral swimming head coach Dianne Kimble said. “It just was getting him to settle down and find direction with it.”
Martinez keeps his condition, which is a subtype on the Autism spectrum, close to the vest for simple reasons. He doesn’t feel it makes him any different. And it doesn’t.
Individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s are often highly functioning, but display difficulty in social situations. Martinez sometimes says the wrong thing at the wrong time, or interprets questions in abstract ways. It’s easier for him to disconnect in large groups. It’s presented its issues over the years, but for the most part there has been little he has not been able to do.
“It hones in on not understanding other people’s feelings and not wanting to socialize with other people,” Martinez said. “You not wanting to socialize is a choice you make after not understanding people.”
Kimble is often the first person he sees when he gets out of the pool. She met him for the first time at a club swimming event before he reached high school, and she’s been part of his inner circle ever since. The longtime Cape Coral biology, marine science and anatomy teacher has given him insight whenever he’s needed it, whether it’s been about school work, training or even girls.
“High school is awkward enough as it is,” Kimble said. “Most times I try to redirect them and make them think before they open their mouths. I spend most of my day doing that.”
In some ways, Martinez has proven his doubters wrong. Back in the seventh grade, he said, a counselor told his parents that he may have trouble graduating, citing his struggles processing information.
But that doubt motivated Martinez in high school. In classes he says he usually stands out by asking questions so he “can learn a little more than what they’re teaching in class.”
He’s currently enrolled in three honors classes and has hopes of swimming in college.
“I struggled in my middle school years,” Martinez said. “I push harder for those things. I made new ways to study. Flash cards, highlighters, anything that I could do that would help.”
Certainly, his work in the pool remains important for the lessons its taught him. But as an athlete, that disconnection from social interaction perhaps made him more focused in the water.
Kimble says finding a connection with him is sometimes as simple as placing him against a teammate during training.
“Setting him up against someone you knew he wanted to beat,” Kimble said. “You just made it like every practice was a race.”
Last season proved to be a boon for the sprinter, who claimed first-place wins in the 100 breast and 200 medley relay at the LCAC Championships and wins in the 50 free, 100 breast, 200 medley relay and 400 free relay at districts.
In the 100 breast, where his best time is 1 minutes, 0.27 seconds, he was second at the Region 2A-4 meet and eighth at states. He continues to be one of the Seahawks’ best athletes and has the potential to medal at state.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes,” Kimble said. “If he’s committed to it, he’ll follow all the parts. He’ll ask himself, ‘What nutrition do I need? Do I need to get into the weight room? How can I make my strokes better?’ If you give him instruction, he will follow it to a T.”
His work ethic has funneled down to his teammates. Kimble said the honor of being named captain was voted on by his teammates after they were given a leadership input form that asked questions like “Who would you go to if you needed help in the pool?” and “Who would you go to if you needed help in the classroom?”
Kimble kept seeing Martinez’s name pop up in those questionnaires.
“Dealing with issues inside a classroom is difficult enough, but for him to be able to go out here and become the leader he has become, it’s phenomenal,” Kimble said. “Over the last few years he’s taken his role and really taken ownership of it.”