Ned Norton: A True American Hero
How one man looked beyond the physical limitations of others and brought them quality of life, liberty, and happiness.
True heroes are few and far between. But thanks to his selfless humility and patience, Ned Norton has a very special calling with very impressive results. He isn’t hard to find being either at his gym teaching wheelchair-bound people independence through upper body workouts, helping wounded combat veterans overcome fitness obstacles at a low-income housing project in Albany, NY, or sending fitness equipment overseas to help victims of war and landmines. Norton is on a mission to make the world a better place one person at a time, one workout at a time.
As a former elite trainer for professional athletes, he used his physical therapy knowledge to create Warriors on Wheels, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping disabled people not only improve their range of motion, but also their quality of life. With many clients paying only $25 per month, he’s not in the Warriors on Wheels business for the money. “I just love to see people smile,” he said.
The Making of a Hero
Thirty years ago, Norton was a highly sought-after fitness trainer for elite athletes and professional body builders. He was a strength coach for three Olympic teams, professional basketball and football teams, and numerous bodybuilders. His high-profile life was dramatically changed when he was asked by a 21-year-old man to help him. This young man had been paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident. He expressed to Norton that he felt helpless, depressed, and regularly contemplated suicide.
Together, Norton and the young man developed a fitness routine that built upper-body strength. Working out his upper body muscles was key in helping this young man get in and out of bed, open doors, get into cars, and improve mobility. The young man’s confidence began to sky-rocket, he no longer felt helpless and trusted his independence. He later enrolled in college again, earned a degree, and landed a professional job. Norton saw how his know-how could make an incredible difference in lives of the disabled, and from that point on, he never looked back.
Norton began his new quest by opening a gym in Albany, New York called the Fitness Factory and began training people with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, visually and hearing impaired, traumatic brain injury, autism, stroke and other limiting health conditions. The first step was getting to know each client by familiarizing himself with their condition from their perspective. Norton worked out with the people who visited the gym to understand their needs and their lifestyle. “The best thing about me training people with disabilities is that it’s more than just touchdowns or winning trophies. It directly relates to improving their lives — that’s always been the best part,” he said.
Warriors on Wheels
Today, Norton regularly helps over 100 disabled clients a week. Since most of his clients are confined to wheelchairs, he created Warriors on Wheels in 1988. Many of his clients are on fixed incomes and have disability benefits from Social Security — a far cry from his million-dollar clients in the early 1980s. But Norton doesn’t miss his former life, he enjoys watching his client’s strength and flexibility improve, as well as their self-esteem and confidence.
Norton is always looking to help people. In 2000, he wanted to help more minority and low-income clients, so he petitioned local government for four vacant apartments in a housing complex to help reach this population. He succeeded in creating a gym in the abandoned space complete with boxing equipment and weights, and it quickly became a local favorite spot for those in the neighborhood.
Warriors on Wheels has been recognized for Norton’s philanthropy, but also for the strength of his wheelchair warriors. Eleven of Norton’s warriors have set state records in bench press in the wheelchair division of local weight-lifting competitions. Norton’s walls are filled with plaques of accomplishments and autographed photos of celebrities and athletes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mohammed Ali. Still, Norton says that the everyday work he does with his clients is “the coolest” and most rewarding.
The Hercules Project
As word about Norton’s program spread throughout the disabled community, he began getting requests for help from not only the United States but around the globe. As luck would have it, Norton once again would be touched by a seemingly chance event. In 2014, he made the list of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes. He invested his $25,000 award money into providing services to his clients worldwide. And thus, The Hercules Project was born.
The Hercules Project sends free fitness equipment to individuals with disabilities all around the world. Norton has enhanced the lives of disabled people in countries like South Sudan, Mali, Great Britain, Darfur, Somalia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Nigeria, Cambodia, and more. The Hercules Project has found particular success with landmine survivors and those in war torn areas. His equipment gives these people access to rehabilitative assistance that they would not otherwise have received.
In June 2016, Norton had the honor of speaking on a panel for the United Nations in New York City. The event, sponsored by the United Nations Mine Action Service, refers many of its African clients to Norton.
Focus Beyond the Impossible
Norton’s success is due in part from his contagious positivity and caring heart. He knows that compassion can work miracles and makes sure to convey that to each client’s workout regimen. To date, Norton has helped over 3,000 clients and they all have one thing in common.
Before meeting him, the people closest to his clients, including doctors, family members, and therapists, only spoke of what they couldn’t do. Norton wants his clients to enter his gym empowered and only focused on what they CAN do. “I become their personal cheerleader, ”he said. “I like to change my client’s focus from what is impossible to what is possible.” And Norton is quite the miracle worker, after a few months most of his clients are happier, experience better quality of life, and mobility. “They get results they can see and feel,” he said. “After the boost in their self-esteem they go from feeling like they are damaged and broken to feeling like the vibrant, vital people they have been all along.”
In addition to fitness, Norton is also a powerful motivational speaker, encouraging positivity, fitness, and the power of belief. For more information on this rare individual’s work, visit www.WarriorsonWheels.org.