“I’m going to win the state champ in high jump,” Norris Frederick told his high school track team. And then…he did. In fact, Norris went on to become the most decorated athlete in Washington State history, all before he even started college.
And it all started with a punishment. A consequence. In 10th grade, Norris was late for the bus that would take his team to their basketball game.
“I’m not sure if my coach just didn’t like me or if he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Norris said, “but he gave me the choice to make up for it either by going on early morning runs with him or participating in a spring sport. Even though I’d never run track before, I knew I wasn’t going to get up for those runs.”
When Spring rolled around, Norris was honest with his new track coach, saying “I’m not here to make friends or to help the team. I’m here because I want to play basketball next year and this is what Coach is making me do.”
Norris was taken aback by his track coach’s response. “Yeah, I can see that,” Norris recalls the coach saying bluntly, “This isn’t one of those sports where you have four other people to pick up your slack.”
Norris’ reaction was a bit indignant, and the coach made him repeat it to the whole team, “Since I’m here, I’m going to win the state champ in high jump.”
In his very first track meet, Norris set a new state record in high jump. By the time he graduated high school, Norris had won the state championship five times between high jump and long jump.
And now, as the multi-medalist prepares to represent Team USA at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Norris has taken his story on the road for an anti-bullying tour that recently stopped at the Night of Flight sponsored by Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana and American Licorice Company.
“My goal is to help kids have a voice and understand that it’s okay to look and be different,” Norris said of addressing the issue of bullying in a way only he can.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Norris faced familiar challenges that still plague the youth of today. But instead of looking at these challenges as disadvantages, Norris skipped the excuses and worked on pushing himself to the top and achieving whatever he set out to do. He approaches the kids who attend his talks from this vantage point.
“I hate when people say I have missed opportunities because I don’t have a dad or something. There are people who have had tons of success who could’ve used the same excuses,” Norris said, “People talk about who has different opportunities, but you need to take advantage of the opportunities that you do have.”
Recently, during a talk Norris was giving in a rougher part of Baltimore, a teenaged boy stood up on the table, jumped across it and grabbed some food from the pantry.
“I was like, ‘Do you mind having a seat until I get done?’” Norris said, explaining that you have to be willing to hold people accountable for their actions.
“I can’t dog on him without knowing him,” Norris said, “so I went home with him. He lives in a house with barely electricity, there’s no food. Nobody in his house was telling him what was wrong and what was right, so he’s bringing that into school.”
“Their whole lives, they’ve HAD to take,” Norris said, “They never ask permission; if they want it, they have to take it.”
“If you put them in a situation where there’s rules, they don’t know how to operate.”
Norris himself experienced these same struggles.
As a third grader, Norris’ principle told him something that heightened his motivations, saying “If you aren’t in prison by the time you’re sixteen, you’ll be dead by the time you’re 18.”
At the time, Norris wanted to shrug it off, but it nagged at him. “I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about, but it really hit and it hurt and it opened my mind and my eyes.”
Norris brings the same tough love to every speaking opportunity he has, hoping to open the eyes and minds of the vulnerable youth of today.
“Everyone has unique value,” Norris said, “Instead of looking at how things can go wrong, we need to make sure they understand that when they do the right thing the way only they can do it, they move us all forward.”
For his part, Norris expresses his value every day in training, moving toward his upcoming Olympic goals.
Remembering his “I’m going to be the best” attitude from the high school track team, Norris admits that speaking his goals aloud means that other people will hold him accountable.
“There’s always going to be those individuals who don’t want you to succeed,” Norris said, “They won’t congratulate you or see how hard you work. They’re the people who are halfway done with their workout an hour before practice is over anyway.”
“I never understood why people gave me so much grief, but I hear it now all the time, ‘You’re so naturally gifted.,’” Norris said, “If you were up at 5am with me, you’d see that natural talent and athleticism only go so far.”
Behind all of Norris’ accomplishments is a strong determination not to prove other people wrong, but to prove to himself that he’s right: he can do whatever he puts his mind to, as long as he puts in the effort.