Warwick natives Joe Martinez and Erika Pena were always athletes, but heading into URI, they were looking for something different.
Martinez, a Toll Gate alum, began taking classes at URI in 2013. Shortly after beginning his college career, he decided that it was time to try a new activity to keep himself busy. After looking at a few different options, he decided to speak with members of the club crew team that he knew on campus, and joined the squad the following day.
Martinez quickly became one of the key members of the team, which went on to take first place in the Varsity Lightweight competition at the ARCA Nationals in 2017. Martinez and his boat would emerge as arguably the top unit to ever come out of the school.
“What was special about the boat, I don’t know what it was, but we all trusted each other. For that boat, it was about putting your personal gain aside and finding one common goal. We had a really good chemistry. That was the thing that set us apart from the other crews,” said Martinez.
When Martinez joined the team, he had no prior rowing experience. However, most of his teammates were in the same boat, literally, and figuratively.
“The most enjoyable part was starting at square 1 with everyone else … No one had the upper hand. We all had to learn something new together. That’s what made it so unique. We all had that competitive fire, but we could no longer compete in our sports from high school. We needed something to fill the void and to give us something to do, and it ended up being one of the best decisions that we all made,” said Martinez.
Martinez’ next goal is to make the US National team. He is currently training at its facilities at Indiana University, where he is working out each day in the weight room and boathouse. He hopes to not only make the team, but to help it win a World title and maybe even make the Olympic squad down the road.
Pena, who is also Martinez’s girlfriend, began studying at the school in 2015. She is also a Toll Gate grad.
As a former track athlete that was recovering from injury, Pena was also looking for a new avenue to compete. Sure enough, Martinez sold Pena on the sport of rowing, and she too gave it a try and caught on quickly.
Women’s rowing is a Division I varsity sport at URI, and Pena went on to become arguably one of the top rowers in the program’s history.
This past season, URI finished 21st in the country and broke school records along the way, and Pena was one of the top performers and leaders of the bunch. She was named to the Atlantic-10 First Team at the conclusion of the season.
“The seniors that were a part of the top boat, we just had a really good attitude. There were no excuses and that kind of set the tone for the incoming freshman. Our tone really changed the way we practiced and the way that we handled different races and situations. The positivity increased tremendously,” said Pena.
Although Pena does not expect to compete beyond college, she does hope to see the sport continue to grow in Rhode Island, especially on the women’s side.
Although crew is one of the most physically demanding sports, Pena believes that it opens up doors that most sports do not, and she encourages local female athletes to consider giving it a try in high school or college.
“You need to want to work out. There’s a lot of technique, it’s not so much an agility sport, but it requires a lot of technique and power. Most people that walk on are former track athletes or swimmers … it takes a lot of endurance,” said Pena. “I made some of my best friends and connections (through crew). A lot of people don’t know this, but rowing for women is a Division I sport, so there are scholarships available for both walk ons and recruits. If people are competitive and are looking for a way to pay for college, this is a great way.”
Martinez echoed those sentiments, and also believes that rowing helps instill discipline and responsibility in young athletes.
“The beauty about rowing is that you can only hold yourself responsible. If you want to compete at the top level only you can push yourself to that level. It is such a physically and mentally demanding sport that you have to almost trick yourself into pushing yourself harder,” said Martinez. “First, it’s great for your health, and that is so important nowadays. It’s great for your cardiovascular system, your aerobic and anaerobic systems. Second, you meet people from all walks of life. I have been to many states and there are always people that I meet that have experience in the sport, or can talk about the sport. You meet people that you will be in touch with for the rest of your life. That is how close knit everyone is.”