By Ned Norton
Ned Norton is the definition of #sweating it forward. A fitness pro and trainer for 35 years, Ned has redirected his talents into his non-profit Warriors on Wheels, which adjusts workouts for those with physical disabilities, delivering the emotional and physical benefits of a darn good workout to those who need it most. Recently named one of the CNN Heroes in 2014 — defined as “everyday people changing the world” — Ned has made it his mission to fill his Albany, NY gym with modified gym equipment. He’s created a space where his disabled clients can strut (or wheel!) their stuff, and where motivation and success is celebrated in all its forms. Here, Ned tells us more about Warriors on Wheels.
What was the inspiration for Warriors on Wheels?
Back in 1988, I was managing a gym and training athletes. A football player I was training had a friend who had just gotten out of rehab, after an accident that left him a paraplegic. He was very concerned about his friend — he wanted to get him out of the house and to start living again — and asked if I could get him training in the gym, not only for the physical benefits, but the psychological and especially the social benefits. I didn't know anything about spinal cord injuries, so I relied on him and his doctor at Albany Medical Center to guide me. As a trainer, I already knew how to train people, so together we figured out a program, and he made rapid, pretty dramatic progress. Back at the hospital for an appointment 6 months later, the doctors were amazed and immediately sent me five more spinal cord injuries. We called our crew “the Warriors on Wheels,” just to sound hardcore. A local sportswriter who worked out at the gym wrote an article on the “Warriors,” and I went from 6 to 40 individuals with disabilities overnight. I didn't charge anyone because so many of them were on a meager fixed income, but the gym wasn't paying me to train people for free either, so I formed a not-for-profit and took a leap of faith — and Warriors on Wheels Inc. was off and running.
My inspiration was the challenge to produce immediate and lasting results. It was different from training someone for a trophy, medal, or game. This was about getting someone’s life back on track, enhancing their daily life skills, and making them as independent as possible. As a trainer, it was the ultimate challenge for me.
What is your strategy for working with disabled clients?
My strategy from day one has always been that I never worry about what they can't do… I worry about what they can do. I work around my clients’ physical limitations, and focus on strengthening whatever they have that can become stronger, more flexible, and better conditioned. We have a saying here at our gym that every person who comes in our front door will become their own success story. How does it happen? Hard work, determination, the endurance of setbacks, and the commitment to never quit until you reach your goals.
How have you adapted the gym equipment, exactly?
When I first started the program I used to assist people transferring from their wheelchairs to Hammer Strength or Cybex equipment. This was often an adventure, and always time-consuming. So with the help of one of the Warriors, Tom Morin, we designed equipment that you could wheel right into and get to work. We designed and had fabricated a plate-loaded vertical bench press, seated dip, shoulder press, and rowing machines. We also had the seats cut off a multi-station, and refitted it with pop pins to keep the seat on or easily remove it. This multi-station includes a pec deck, lat pull down cable, preacher curl, and shoulder press.
What disabilities do you cater to?
I work with people with a wide range of disabilities: Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and vision/ hearing impaired. Goals and benefits are specifically related to the disability. For example, spinal cord injured benefit in being able to transfer in and out of their wheelchair to a car, shower, or bed unassisted. In working with people who have MS, we concentrate on keeping their strength level as they endure periodic exacerbation of the disease. Working with those who are autistic, we target social benefits equally with the physical benefits of their training. All goals and benefits for people in our program target directly their quality of life.
Your organization offers training at low or no cost for the disabled. Where do you get funding?
Up until a few months ago, I worked a full-time job to support my family running a city-sponsored youth fitness program. Over the years I have relied on loyal corporate sponsors and friends to help keep the program going. My gym is located in a public housing project high rise, and the Albany Housing Authority donates the space to me so I don't have to pay rent. I also have a transportation fund that pays for rides to and from the gym. Most of the Warriors are on fixed income, so I have had to be creative all these years to keep things going, like a fundraising barbecue at Giants Training Camp and promoting powerlifting competitions.
You were once a fitness trainer for Olympic athletes, lifters, body builders, and football players. Do you use the same training principles with the Warriors?
I was a competitive power lifter and Olympic lifter for years, and I also held many lifting competitions. Being completely involved in the lifting community put me in the right place to train people of all levels of ability, from high school age to Olympic athletes. I do use the same old-school training principles with the Warriors. In fact, at one time we had five Warriors who could bench press over 300 lbs!
How did it feel to be named a CNN Hero?
The best thing about the CNN Heroes thing was that it was completely unexpected. When they first called, I was putting a group of Warriors on the bus and thought one of my friends was pranking me. It has been an incredible experience. I have received emails and calls from around the world, and it seems like every day something positive happens related to CNN. After 25 years, our big break has come, and for the first time since 1988, I am feeling pretty confident about the future of the program. I am very grateful to CNN. Everyone from CNN was very cool, and being introduced by Kelly Ripa was just mind-blowing to me. (She is in good shape, too, I felt her biceps!)
Do you still do fitness training outside of the program?
I do the physical fitness training for the City of Albany Fire Department. I especially like working at the Fire Training Academy for new recruits. The firefighters are just great to be around, lots of fun. They have supported me with Warriors, and helped me raise money for the Michael J Fox Foundation when I ran the NYC Marathon in honor of my dad.
Any last advice for readers?
Don't ever worry about what you can't do… Worry about what you can do, work your ass off, and absolutely never quit.
Ned Norton is the owner of the Warriors Gym, and Founder and Director of the Warriors on Wheels program. He is also a strength coach and fitness trainer with 35 years of professional experience. A former competitive power lifter and Olympic lifter, and a three-time finisher of the NYC Marathon, Ned knows his fitness.
For more information, call (518) 506-1011, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.