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Despite his condition, Nate Martinez has one of the biggest hearts in Flagstaff.

And it shows through the more than 50 medals he has won during his 10 years of playing sports.

Today, he gets another chance to add to his collection of hardware. Martinez will travel to Peoria with the Coconino Alumni softball team to compete over the weekend in the 2015 Special Olympics Fall Games.

"He's taken it and ran with it," said Kimberly Dennis, who adopted Martinez while she was still a softball coach at Sinagua High School.

Dennis, who is now the manager of the Coconino Panthers softball team and a physical therapist for the Flagstaff Unified School District, took Martinez to a cardiologist in March of 2006. The doctors told Dennis she had brought Martinez in without much time to spare, prompting her to become more a part of his life through adoption.

"He actually should have been dead, according to the cardiologist," Dennis said.

The doctors at Phoenix Children's Hospital stopped and restarted Martinez's heart, and it hasn't stopped going in full force since. 

Soon enough, Martinez became Coach Martinez.

Martinez was involved with all types of sports, acting as manager for several programs and working scoreboards while working his way through school. The 22-year-old graduated in 2015 from Coconino, where he played several Special Olympics sports, which he said he "likes all about the same."

"He came on board quickly and he didn't have a choice not to fall in love with softball," Dennis said. "However, he had a love of baseball prior with his dad -- which has come out more and more through him just being with me and all the stories he has about watching the Diamondbacks win the World Series with his dad and stuff like that."

One of his favorite parts of competing in Special Olympics events is the team bonding that comes with playing sports such as floor hockey and track and field.

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"We make a lot of friends, and when we are in the hotel we have team-bonding dinners and stuff," Martinez said.

Although Dennis met Martinez through physical therapy, she said that sports also played a role in bonding them "closer together." For Martinez, he said he was glad to be adopted into a family that is involved with sports.

Dennis admitted that she likes to give her son pointers while occasionally being "tough on him, of course," she said while directing a smile his way.

But after going through three open-heart surgeries to help treat his truncus arteriosus, Martinez is ready to compete and leave it all out on the courts and fields he plays on.

Truncus arteriosus is a rare heart disease that occurs at birth and limits the amount of blood vessels stemming from the heart. Dennis has to monitor how hard Martinez pushes himself, something he likes to do.

Martinez said that in order to get another gold medal with his teammates, he has to "play hard and keep on practicing," two things he is grateful for.

"I can't be a part of regular sports because of my heart condition, but I really like to play sports, so Special Olympics really helped me with that," said Martinez, who, like his favorite current baseball player Paul Goldschmidt, enjoys playing first base.

Dennis said she was glad to be able to be part of Martinez's life and passion of sports.

"I said, 'I'd take that kid in if I could,'" Dennis said of when she first started spending time with Martinez. "I don't know what made me say it, but it was maybe just God saying, 'Hey, this kid needs some help.'"

However, Dennis also said that while she saved him, he has also saved her and continues to put aspects of life in perspective for her.

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com.

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