Ned Norton, CNN Hero - Warriors on Wheels - Shin Fujiyama Podcast Social Entrepreneurship

CNN Hero Ned Norton, Founder of Warriors on Wheels

Ned Norton could deadlift 660 pounds. But that’s one of his smaller accomplishments in life.

Ned is a social entrepreneur and a Top 10 CNN Hero from Albany, New York. He is the founder of Warriors on Wheels. In this episode he tells his story all the way from growing up as a scrawny kid (like me) and how that motivated him to become a competitive athlete and power lifter. He became a fitness trainer and trained several Olympic athletes, helping them win gold medals.

But even that wasn’t enough for Ned Norton. He needed a greater challenge. Through a series of random events, he began to train a friend who had been paralyzed from an accident. Soon, many people in wheelchairs and with physical disabilities like spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injuries began to seek his help.

So in 1988, Ned started the nonprofit organization, Warriors on Wheels, opening a gym at his home town specialized for individuals with disabilities. At one point, he trained five members at his gym to bench press 300+ pounds.

Through his newest initiative, The Hercules Project, Ned ships free fitness and rehab equipment to individuals with disabilities in more than ten countries, including Mali, Darfur, Guatemala, and Somalia.

Ned has a saying at his gym: every person who comes in our front door will become their own success story.

Show Notes & Summary

  • Ned Norton was a scrawny kid growing up
  • When Ned was 12, his uncle gave him a set of weights, which was a great discovery for Ned
  • At his peak, Ned was deadlifting 660lbs
  • He loves going to the gym, he can’t wait to get there each day (like me)
  • “It becomes part of your life. Like brushing your teeth.”
  • Ned Norton is 58 years old
  • He got his dream job, to work at a gym. He became a trainer.
  • He worked with a few Olympic gold medal winners
  • He was a strength coach for three Olympic teams, basketball teams, football teams, bodybuilders
  • He learned about a 20-year-old guy who had gotten paralyzed after falling off a tree. The kid was so depressed that he was suicidal
  • Ned started training him at the gym, which instantly boosted the kid’s confidence and self-esteem, eventually leading him to return to college and find a job
  • Nobody at the hospital could believe he was the same guy. This inspired 6 other people from the hospital come in to train with Ned
  • He had no specialized equipment
  • They called themselves the Warriors to have a cool name
  • The guys were making social and psychological transformation through Ned’s training
  • 60 people began to seek Ned for training after a story was published in the local newspaper
  • Ned saw the need and formed a nonprofit organization to help his disabled trainees
  • They get that feeling of well-being, confidence, progress, positivity
  • He found an abandoned floor in a public housing project which he was able to use for free for the new facility
  • People thought he was crazy for working in the “projects”
  • He charges a fee at his gym, but if people can’t afford it, they don’t need to pay
  • Less than 25% of his members are paying
  • When Ned got the phone call from CNN, he thought it was some kind of joke from the fire department guys
  • So many times things were so tough he was on the brink of closing the doors
  • It was on the day that Ned was contemplating how he was going to close down the gym and sell the equipment that he go the phone call from CNN Heroes
  • The ups and downs of running a nonprofit organization is extreme
  • Ned does it ALL ALONE. He runs the gym, he does the social media, the website, takes care of his family
  • The CNN glory gave Ned about a year of fame and funding. After that, he has had to return to the grind. “It never ends lol.”
  • He was out meeting celebrities, movie stars, and on TV. Soon after, he was back in the projects hustling and grinding to keep the gym afloat
  • Raising money is the most frustrating thing about running Warriors on Wheels
  • Ned has a hard time asking for money (he’s like a giant teddy bear)
  • After being on CNN, people with disabilities from all over the world began contacting him for help
  • A guy from Cambodia asked for help for landmine survivors and that sparked the Hercules Project where Ned sends resistance bands for free all over the world
  • Ned partnered up with the United Nations Mine Action Service
  • He will be sending workout equipment to Cali, Colombia (I’ll be there during October-November, 2016)
  • He sent equipment to patients from a mental hospital in Somalia, where people had been chained down and their muscles had atrophied drastically
  • One girl in his program lost a leg to bone cancer at age 18, then at 24 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which put her on a wheelchair, then she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to get a double mastectomy. Yet she still never misses a workout.
  • Ned has a strict morning routine where he works out at the gym and/or goes for a long run to “outrun the thoughts in his head.”
  • To help the people in wheelchairs bench press 300+ pounds, Ned followed the strategy: Less is More. He only had them do 3-5 bench press sets per workout using his 6-8 weeks program.
  • Because his athletes dominated so many competitions, Ned eventually felt like he was the “evil coach” from the Karate Kid movie lol
  • I decide on the show to name our home gym at the Villa Soleada Children’s Home the “Warrior’s Gym Honduras”
  • Ned read up on Arnold and Franco’s workout tips during his early days, before the internet was available
  • Arnold said to Ned in a seminar: “Don’t ever do any of the workouts I talk about in the magazines. I never did any of them!”
  • Ned’s “go-to” fitness resource is Muscle and Fitness
  • “Once you get hooked into enjoying it [fitness], it opens up a whole new world for you.”
  • “You can always do more than you think you can. Never give up.”
  • “You’ve only tapped into 40% of your potential.”
  • He calls his best friends at the gym “the smelly monkey butts” lol
  • Ned trains people with Down’s Syndrome. They oftentimes are good at powerlifting and bench pressing because they have shorter limbs.
  • When people come into the gym for the first time after recovering from an injury, they have terrible self-esteem
  • Sometimes doctors, family, and people at the rehab office focus on telling their patients what they can’t do, what not to do. Whereas Ned talks about the amazing things they will be able to do after his 3-month training program.