Very few Olympic athletes start their journey as end-of-the-bench cheerleaders.
But University Place’s Adrienne Martelli has turned an opportunistic sighting into a successful run as a world-class women’s rower.
Martelli is one of 12 rowers returning for USRowing from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, where she was a member of the quadruple sculls boat that took home a bronze medal.
Four years later, she will remain in that boat for the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro along with fellow returning rower Megan Kalmoe and newcomers Tracy Eisser and Grace Latz.
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Martelli, 28, said she will retire from national-team competition once these Olympics are over.
“This is definitely my last hurrah,” she said.
Go back 12 years, and the floor of the Tacoma Dome is where this story starts.
At that time, Martelli was a sophomore at Curtis High School. She was a slender and spry 6-foot-1 teenager who ran cross country in the fall, and played basketball in the winter.
For the Vikings, she was a reserve center and sparring partner for Washington State University-bound Ebonee Coates.
“A gentle giant — very soft-spoken,” said Jackie Thomas, the point guard on that 2004 Curtis squad that advanced to the Class 4A state tournament. “Anytime you said something to her, she had a smile. If something good happened for us, she was always the first one off the bench clapping.”
At some point during the state tournament, one of the assistant rowing coaches at the University of Washington noticed Martelli sitting on the bench.
“Basketball made her a fast, 6-1 (athlete),” said Chris Martelli, Adrienne’s father. “She could chase down a guard during a fast break, but she was not big and physical.”
Adrienne Martelli recalls being in class and mentioning to a few basketball teammates that the UW had contacted her.
“I was like, ‘Huh, for basketball? You didn’t even play,’ ” Thomas said. “And she said, ‘No, it is for rowing.’ She mentioned they thought she had great shoulders, and her height would be an asset if she was interested in trying (rowing).”
A longtime Huskies fan, Martelli stayed in contact with the program. In her senior year of high school, she finally took a visit to Seattle in February to see what Huskies rowing was all about.
She and her father arrived at the Conibear Shellhouse — the primary home of UW rowing — at 6 a.m. Martelli remembers the immediate buzz she felt when she walked through the doors.
“There were so many people hustling around, and I had no idea what was going on,” Martelli said.
Novice coach Erica Schwab recruited Martelli to write down some of the boats’ times from the early-morning workout.
“I was in awe of what was happening,” Martelli said. “Everyone was so in synch with the movement of the boat.
“It was ‘game over’ for me.”
It didn’t take long for Martelli — who walked on to the UW team after graduating Curtis in 2006 — to make an immediate impact in the oldest intercollegiate sport in the United States.
As a sophomore in 2008, she was part of one of the most memorable comebacks in school history in the varsity four, which made up a boat length deficit over the final 500 meters to win the NCAA Division I title and cap an undefeated season under longtime coach Bob Ernst.
“The biggest thing I remember about her at (the UW) was her nickname — ‘The Hammer,’ ” said Andy Foltz, the women’s rowing coach at Pacific Lutheran University who was a volunteer assistant for the Huskies at the time.
“Now in rowing, that nickname is not thrown around very casually because it refers to raw power. But that is the thing she had — a ton of raw power.”
Ernst recommended that Martelli try out for USRowing’s Under 23 National Team, which she made in 2009. The women’s eight boat placed second at the world championships held in the Czech Republic.
And after two more seasons as an All-Pacific 10 Conference performer with the Huskies, she moved to Princeton, New Jersey, four days after graduation in 2010 to train with the country’s best athletes with USRowing.
That is where she began her full-time transition from single-oar sweep rowing to two-oared sculling.
Sweep rowing rules the roost in the United States, especially on the women’s side. The women’s eight on the national team is a heavy favorite in Rio to bring home a third consecutive gold medal.
Showcasing pure power, it is also the preeminent discipline in college rowing.
Sculling, which seems to be a better blend of technique, power and aptitude, is generally considered the more accepted style worldwide.
“You still get to go fast,” Martelli said. “There is also something about the way the boat moves and surges that is has become one of my favorite boats to row.”
Martelli has traditionally sat in the stroke seat of the quadruple scull, which is located at the stern. Her two primary roles are to set the pace and steer the boat by using a cable attached to her big toe.
“Once the boat reaches top racing speed, it goes a lot straighter,” Martelli said.
Injuries, especially to the body’s core, are common in rowing. Martelli said she gets dinged up pretty regularly, which is one of the biggest reasons she has decided to retire after this summer.
She broke a rib during training last summer. The injury almost kept her off the U.S. team for Rio.
“I felt like I was on the outside looking in,” Martelli said.
But in June, Martelli was selected to remain in the women’s quadruple sculls boat for the 2016 Olympics.
And a day after the opening ceremony, her boat will be on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas Aug. 6 for qualifying with the medal round taking place four days later.
“I was never one of those kids who ever made it a goal to go to the Olympics,” Martelli said. “It has been a process, and it has been amazing.”