Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles as Michigan writers Rachel Lenzi and Kevin Goheen travel the country to meet this year’s incoming class of freshmen. This week we feature WR Oliver Martin of Iowa City, Iowa.
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The swimming pool is a natural place for Oliver Martin, even if he doesn’t have fins or gills.
He was in the water at an early age, competing in races as a 6-year-old, so as the moment of the biggest decision of his young life approached, it was appropriate that Martin was at the University of Michigan’s Canham Natatorium with Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, assistant head coach Pep Hamilton and Martin’s family.
“I’m going to Michigan!” Martin exclaimed before diving into the first lane of the pool as Harbaugh and Hamilton let out a “Woo!” and then joined him in the celebratory splash, opting for more of a Nestea plunge technique.
That might be as exuberant as you’ll see Martin, 18, get in public. His Twitter account is mostly happy birthday wishes to friends and a few retweets. His announcement in late January, just ahead of National Signing Day, gave the 4-star wide receiver (per 247Sports) nearly as much relief as it did excitement. The hustle and bustle that is college football recruiting can be taxing. It was for Martin, although the end result was exactly what he wanted.
“When I was able to pick the right school, the best fit for me at the end, that was a relief. It’s over and I know it’s the right place,” Martin said. “December-January, that time period leading into signing day, that’s when home visits start and colleges want to know and are putting the pressure on. It just seemed the recruiting process was consuming most of my time.”
Time is something Martin does not waste.
‘He just wants to be the best’
Martin’s name wasn’t big in football recruiting circles last spring when he and his father, Jeff, made the three-plus-hour drive from Iowa City to Chicago for regional competition of Nike’s The Opening camp.
Besides being an accomplished swimmer, Martin is good on the baseball field. So is his team at Iowa City West High School.
High school baseball season in Iowa gets a later start than most parts of the country, with play continuing into the summer. There are a lot of doubleheaders, too, and Oliver was coming off a twinbill when he and his dad got in the car and headed east on I-80.
Jeff Martin told his son that he didn’t need to go to this competition. It would be late when they arrived and early when they needed to get up.
“I wanted him to be there at his best,” Jeff said.
But Oliver was going, and he was going to show everyone something.
Martin earned MVP honors at the camp and a trip to The Opening Finals at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.
That may have surprised many, but not Oliver, his father and or anyone else who watched him play. He’s 6-foot-1 and his weight is listed at 189 pounds, although he’s thicker than that, more like 205 pounds, according to his personal trainer, J.C. Moreau.
“I don’t know what motivates him personally other than he just wants to be the best,” said Iowa City West football coach Garrett Hartwig. “What makes a young man like that tick, you never know. I wish I knew because then I’d pass it on to my own sons. It’s unique, to say the least.”
It started with swimming
Jeff Martin was a swimmer at Northern Iowa, and he and his wife, Lisa, didn’t shy from putting any of their children — Oliver, Ruby, Scarlet and Finn — into the pool at an early age. Each has shown an affinity for the water.
Ruby, 17, placed fourth in the 200-meter butterfly at last summer’s Olympic Trials and is going through her own national recruiting process as she prepares for her senior year in high school. Scarlet, 12, has eclipsed some of Ruby’s age-group marks for their club team, the Iowa Flyers, as well as at the state, sectional and national levels. Finn, 10, seems a little more interested in baseball, but he swims, too.
Oliver had success quickly as a swimmer. He understood that he was good at the sport but, his father said, Oliver also realized why he was beating others even if they were in older age groups.
“Swimming is a great sport to get a kid involved in and, in my opinion, [it is] what taught him to be the ultra-competitor that he is,” Jeff Martin said. “What swimming does for the development of a kid physically, the mental development is even greater. I know there’s a lot of other sports that can do that … but he learned at a young age that he had to work hard.
“He had a lot of success when he was young just because he was athletically gifted. That translated in the pool right away. He could swim his strokes better than other kids because he was more coordinated, and he had success that drove him to continue to be better.”
Oliver’s main athletic focus switched to football once he entered high school, but swimming continued to be vital. Most swimmers, particularly those in the upper echelon of the sport, commit solely to the sport and the long hours of training it requires. Martin found ways to incorporate his three favorite sports.
“I’m competitive year-round,” Martin said. “Football and baseball are more explosive sports. You do lifting, you have to be quick-twitch a lot of the time, hand-eye coordination is important. Swimming is a little more cardio-based, longer hours of training, more frequent training. Swimming has taught me the work ethic, and that you get out what you put in. I’ve been able to carry that over to my mentality with football and baseball. That’s just helped me excel even more in those sports.
“I can take the football and baseball explosiveness, twitchiness, and apply that to swimming, and that’s helped me with the sprints.”
A dream come true
Martin has played in three state title games in baseball, but his West team finished runner-up each time. The West football team reached the Class 4A football state title game. It beat Bettendorf, a program that knocked West out of the postseason three times since 2011, on the road in the first round, but fell in the championship game.
When the football season was over, and recruiting season headed into its final stretch, Martin got back in the pool. It would have been easy to forego the swim season, but Martin had other plans. He wanted to finish what he started. Martin had won seven state relay championships and two team titles, but he wanted an individual state championship. He set his sights on the 50-yard freestyle at the Iowa state championships.
It took some adjusting of his training schedule with West swimming coach Byron Butler, who embraced the idea. Butler is a former University of Iowa swimmer who was an All-American and still holds several Iowa records. He devised a plan that shortened workouts not just for Martin, but other team members and emphasized speed over endurance.
“There was definitely communication on that part [not swimming] because there’s a lot of pressure when you’re being recruited to play football,” Butler said. “I wanted to make it work. I’m all about accommodating the kid if I can. I don’t think with that new mentality that I’m trying to put forward that you need to be here every day pounding yardage. I wanted him in the weight room four times a week. I wanted him to be explosive, and if we can get in here for some technique work, I thought he could win the 50 free at state.”
Martin beat the field with a time of 20.72 seconds. His time was just .03 seconds off the standard for automatically being named All-American by the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association, and less than one-half second off the Iowa state meet record. If his time is among the top 100 in the country, he can still be named All-American.
“That’s been a long-time goal of mine growing up,” Martin said of the individual state title. “I’d go to the high school state swimming meet when I was younger and the atmosphere there was really cool to be a part of. To have a chance to swim in that final heat and win the race was really a dream come true. That’s something I wanted to do my whole life. The feeling of winning that race and satisfying that goal was really cool.”
Building relationships lead to Michigan
Martin caught 158 passes for 2,350 yards and totaled 3,675 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns over his junior and senior seasons. Those numbers opened the eyes of recruiters. His first offer from a Power 5 school came from Wisconsin, but others followed: Vanderbilt, UCLA, Ohio State, Florida, Michigan State, Michigan and eventually hometown Iowa.
For a person who shuns the spotlight, it was a lot to handle.
“I think he felt overwhelmed, but not because he was afraid of the big stage by any stretch,” Hartwig said. “I think Oliver was so humbled by the interest he got that he didn’t want to let people down. He didn’t want to disappoint a school like Ohio State, a school like Michigan State, a school like Iowa.
“You get one offer from one of those schools and that’s a huge deal, but to get multiple offers, I think, was very humbling and he didn’t want to feel like he was slighting anybody when he had to make the final choice.”
Martin’s experiences last summer in Oregon at The Opening finals helped him make his decision. He played on Team HyperCool as part of the 7-on-7 portion of the camp with nine other players who eventually signed with Michigan. Fellow wide receivers Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones were on the team, as was quarterback Dylan McCaffrey.
The group developed close friendships that grew as several of them played at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio in January. Martin said he and McCaffrey will be roommates their freshman year.
“I think being on the HyperCool team is where it really started,” Martin said. “We have similar personalities. We started talking the first day of The Opening, we’d eat together and that’s where the friendship took off. We’re now good friends.”
Driving to Omaha
It was June 30 last year when Martin texted some friends and said he wanted to go to Omaha, where Ruby was swimming in the 200 fly finals at the Olympic Trials. She was a long shot to finish in the top two and earn a berth on the Olympics team, but she was in the race.
Iowa City is 250 miles from Omaha. A quick decision was needed.
“It was about five hours before the race and I texted a few of my friends to see if they wanted to drive up, so we drove up,” Martin said. “We got there. Her goal was to make the top eight, the final heat. She had written it down on paper and had it on her bathroom mirror, so she achieved that goal. Being in the final, it was extra for her.
“She performed to the top of her ability in the final. She dropped even more time and got fourth place. That was really cool to see all her work pay off, all of her time commitment.”
All that time and commitment is an experience Oliver shares with Ruby. It’s something the entire family has shared, but the two oldest Martin siblings, with only a year in age separating them, can relate to each other differently.
“Sports have been such a big part of our lives since we were young, so we can relate to each other with balancing that with school work,” Martin said. “Performing at the highest level, we can relate to each other, give each other advice. Mainly me giving it to her.”
Just as a big brother should.
One final plunge
The leap was Joe Hastings’ idea.
Ruby was at Canham Natatorium when Oliver took the leap into the pool with Harbaugh and Hamilton. She was helping Harbaugh’s daughter, Addie, at the pool when Oliver returned from a tour with his dad and Hastings, a graduate assistant.
“Coach Harbaugh was there, my mom was there, and I was just getting to the pool with coach Hastings and my dad,” Martin said. “Coach Hastings knew I wanted to go there, so he said you could be the first guy to commit and jump into a pool.
“I was like ‘all right.’ ”
Martin finally had his moment of relief. Throughout the recruiting process, he had stayed away from the limelight, refraining from interviews and keeping a low-key presence on social media.
“Socially, academically, football-wise, Michigan was the best fit for me all around,” Martin said. “I know a lot of my guys going into Michigan. I’m good friends with them, and that made it the best fit.”
The pool always had been a place of comfort for Martin. It was even more so at that moment.