Dalton's J.R. Martinez overcame injuries to become a 'Dancing with the Stars' front-runner

Dalton's J.R. Martinez overcame injuries to become a 'Dancing with the Stars' front-runner

October 30th, 2011 by Casey Phillips in News

J.R. Martinez sits in a bedroom in his house in Dalton, Ga., in this 2008 photograph.

The "handsome, popular athlete" J.R. Martinez remembers being liked for before he joined the Army and suffered burns over 40 percent of his body in Iraq. Today, he's thankful that he knows who likes him for him.

The "handsome, popular athlete" J.R. Martinez remembers being...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Even with fans around the country cheering him on "Dancing With the Stars," J.R. Martinez, of Dalton, Ga., said that when it comes to his most important source of support, there's no place like home.

With one of the highest overall scores six weeks into the ABC reality program's 13th season, Martinez and his professional dance partner, Karina Smirnoff, are considered the season's front-runners.

After two weeks with near-perfect scores, Martinez has ignited a blaze of media attention and has appeared in outlets ranging from "Entertainment Tonight" and "20/20" to the cover of Nov. 7's People Magazine.

However, he said that approbation doesn't mean nearly as much as the support from his friends and family in Dalton, where he still manages to visit once or twice a year.

"When I read on Twitter and Facebook how everyone from that area is supporting me and rooting for me, it really gives me a great feeling," Martinez said during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I will continue to work my butt off to make every single one of them proud."

Martinez, 28, said he first realized how much that support meant to him after returning to Dalton bearing both emotional and physical wounds suffered in Iraq.

On April 5, 2003, a month after being deployed as an infantryman in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, then-Cpl. Martinez's Humvee struck a mine. The 19-year-old was burned severely over nearly half his body.

He spent almost three years at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and underwent more than 30 corrective surgeries. At first, family and friends said his physical injuries and changed appearance left him feeling depressed and questioning his survival. Even after all the treatment he has been through, his face remains disfigured and his body is scarred.

Yet, thanks to a conversation with his mother, Maria Zavala, and an encounter he had at the medical center helping console a fellow burn victim, Martinez said he considered his injuries in a new light. He began using his experiences to help other burn victims deal with the trauma of recovery.

But after his discharge, he wasn't sure whether friends and neighbors in Dalton would accept his altered appearance. Their overwhelming encouragement and support made all the difference then, and it still does, Martinez said.

"From that moment on, the way everyone has embraced me and supported me has just been amazing," he said.

J.R. Martinez, of Dalton, Ga., is hoping for continued success on "Dancing with the Stars" on ABC.

J.R. Martinez, of Dalton, Ga., is hoping for...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.


Martinez said the challenge of learning to dance can't match the suffering he endured, but at times, it can come close.

"It is tough," he said. "Dancing is not easy. ... This seven or eight hours of rehearsal a day for four days a week to make it look like it looks when people see it Monday night - it's not an easy thing to do."

But spending 30 hours a week in the studio has been paying dividends.

Martinez and Smirnoff are the current leaders this season with an overall score of 153 points and an average weekly rating of 25.5 points out of a possible 30.

Martinez's friends said they didn't expect him to have such talent on the dance floor, but after seeing him recover from his injuries, they knew how tenacity and a positive attitude could help him overcome obstacles.

Why should dance be any different? asked Gene Threet, whose son, Jeffery, 26, was Martinez's close friend during his senior year at Dalton High School. Martinez moved to Dalton in 2001 with his mother.

"J.R. has always been very athletic and the kind of person who does a good job at whatever he decides to do," Threet said. "It doesn't surprise me, from that respect, but I didn't know what kind of natural ability he would have for it. Obviously, he's very good."

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said his wife, Pam, has been voting for Martinez every week. Whether Martinez wins or loses, Pennington said, he is proud to see another North Georgian join "American Idol" finalist and Rossville native Lauren Alaina in the national spotlight.

"We're very excited to have a former Daltonian on the show, particularly one who is a war hero," Pennington said. "He brings great glory to this community."

Actor and war veteran J.R. Martinez, right, and his partner Karina Smirnoff perform in the celebrity dance competition series "Dancing with the Stars," in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/ABC, Adam Taylor)

Actor and war veteran J.R. Martinez, right, and...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.


After weeks of coming in second, Smirnoff and Martinez wowed the show's panel of three judges Oct. 17 with a samba to "Conga" by Gloria Estefan.

The performance earned them 28 points, including their first perfect 10 score, and put them solidly in the lead.

Martinez said the supposed rivalry between himself and talk show host Ricki Lake is mostly a media fabrication, but he still was inspired to push even harder this week.

"I've heard all season that people have felt that I should have received a 10 this week or that week, so I didn't necessarily felt like I had to prove it," he said. "It was more coming out and not going down from that point but go even higher."

When Smirnoff introduced Martinez to the choreography for last week's quickstep to "The Hot Honey Rag" from the Broadway musical "Chicago," she warned him it was "the most ambitious routine I've attempted."

Coming from an eight-year veteran of the show, Martinez said that was intimidating to hear.

Smirnoff's evaluation proved true. Martinez said he normally has each week's routine solid by Saturday evening, but the night before the Monday competition, he still was working on details of the quickstep.

But he and Smirnoff pulled off a near-perfect performance Monday night.

"I feed so much off the energy of the crowd," Martinez explained. "When I felt everyone cheering and on their feet and I looked at the judges and saw they had smiles on their faces, I knew, 'OK, well, [the score] is not going to be bad.' "

The result, 29 points, was their highest score of the season.

"What you've done is created a rip-roaring, audience-rising, 11 o'clock number that makes this show a hit," said Bruno Tonioli, who gave the pair one of two perfect-10 judgments.

While it may sometimes feel like boot camp, Martinez said being on the show certainly has its upsides.

"At least my partner Karina [Smirnoff] is prettier than a drill sergeant," he said, laughing.

J.R. Martinez in the burn ward at Brooke Army Medical Center, about three months after a landmine blast in Iraq left 40 percent of his body covered in third degree burns. He said the debridement to remove the dead skin and scar tissue was more painful than the initial injury.

J.R. Martinez in the burn ward at Brooke...


Looking forward, Martinez said he's determined to take top honors on "Dancing With the Stars," but afterward, there are many paths he wants to pursue.

With the cancellation of ABC soap opera "All My Children" in September, Martinez ended his three-year run portraying Brot Monroe, a wounded veteran returning home in search of love.

Martinez followed the role across the country, relocating to New York in 2008 and to California in 2009, when the show began filming in ABC's West Coast studios. He said he enjoys acting and wants it to continue to be part of his life.

First, however, Martinez said he wants to write a memoir, something people have been clamoring for since he began motivational speaking in 2006.

The time wasn't right until now, he said, but he has begun reaching out to publishing companies in hopes of having something on shelves in the next six months.

Martinez said he hopes the book, as yet unnamed, will help demonstrate how he has used positive thinking to overcome the odds.

"It's about telling that story, about life and its adversity and believing when it seems like all the odds are against you," he said. "It's pretty much my whole life story about how each situation has given me something extra to prepare for the current situation."

And as to a potential career in dancing?

Martinez said Smirnoff constantly threatens him with training him on a more permanent basis.

While dancing will continue to be a part of his life, he suggested it may also be the one obstacle he opts to avoid.

"I might be 28, but I don't know if my body can do this every single day for the rest of my life. That's a little much," he said, laughing. "[But] when this competition is done - win, lose or draw - it's going to be something that I will always cherish."

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