Hi everyone! My name is James Norris and I am Handi Capable Athlete and motivational speaker. I founded Handi Capable Fitness (HCF) with the goal of using individual experiences to better the handi-capable community through conscious dialogue and action. I hope, more than anything, that HCF becomes a way for us all to learn from each other.
I was born three months premature. I weighed 2.5 pounds and measured 11.75” from head to toe; that’s shorter than a Velveeta box. I stayed in the hospital for three months, and my Mom would tell me years later she would wear the same perfume everyday so I would know she was there. About a month after being released, I was rushed to the hospital to undergo an emergency hernia surgery. During the procedure, the tube that was to deliver my oxygen was not taped to my mouth; I moved during surgery and was deprived of oxygen for five minutes. At the time, it was unclear if I was going to survive. By the grace of God, I did.
Before my second birthday, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP). There are many different types and severities of CP; my type affects my legs and left arm, leaving me with poor balance and limited use of my arm. As a child, I had many surgeries on my back, ankles, hips, and hamstrings, each with the goal of loosening the muscles to increase range of motion and flexibility. This, of course, was followed by years of physical therapy . . . and let me tell you, I HATED IT! That being said, my parents, teachers, and physical therapist didn’t let me off the hook that easy, and thanks to them, I was able to use braces and a walker.
I’d always been a huge sports fan, so my parents got me involved in Challenger baseball and basketball. I immediately fell in love. Every Friday night, I became either Mo Vaughn or Michael Jordan.
You’ll Never Hear Me Say
Why me? Or, life sucks. Sure, I’ve had (and still have) tough days, but I have always been okay with my circumstances—here’s why. First and foremost, my faith, and second, how I was raised. My family never treated me any different than anyone else . . . actually, they held me to higher standards because they knew what I was capable of. And let’s be honest, a life with CP is the only life I’ve ever known.
Still, I was shy and not very outgoing. I’d go to school, come home, do homework, and watch sports—and I was totally fine with that. That all changed when I met Mrs. Thur, my high school study teacher. She was high-energy and loved sports, so I’d sit with her as she’d share stories about the great Celtics teams of the 70s and 80s. One day, she told me to come with her to the gym, where she introduced me to the head coach of the girls’ basketball team, Coach Brown, who asked if I’d keep the shot charts and be the new team manager. Soon after that, Mrs. Thur even convinced me to go to prom (my date was a girl from the basketball team—she looked great, I might add!) and encouraged me to get myself out there whenever possible. Mrs. Thur was a huge influence on who I am today, but by the time I left high school, I still had a lot of work to do.
A “Face for Radio” (And a Whole Lot More)
After high school, I attended the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, which led me to Jason, of Radio 92.9 (WBOS). Jason is what I like to call a character builder—through an internship and eventually my first radio job, he absolutely threw me to the wolves. He was direct, he was demanding, and in many ways, I couldn’t have asked for a better coach. I remember this one time, he got ticked off at me, so he grabbed a marker and wrote a line on the wall and said “You’re here and I need you here!” The second mark seemed to be light years away from the first, and it felt like a coach screaming at his team during halftime.
Thank God I didn’t quit, because looking back at Jason’s methods, I know he was just showing me what life would be like in the real world. Did he handle it right all the time? Well, no, but hey—we’re all human. Jason and I are still friends to this day.
I then took a leap of faith for a production job and a new house out in California. While a new job and home would have been more than enough, I don’t drive, so I relied on public transportation or disabled ride services—both of which were almost nonexistent in Southern California at the time.
My life in California made me realize how busy my life in Boston had been. The radio position had often stretched beyond normal working hours, and most weeks involved two to three bar gigs a week interacting with listeners. These nights were long, but before long, I was having 6-7 drinks a night. Was I an alcoholic? I don’t think so, but I can honestly say I was on that path.
In California, though, time seemed to slow down. Every now and again, I would help out in the office at my uncle’s RV business just to keep myself busy. One day, my uncle hired a new employee named Kristina; we quickly hit it off and started hanging out often, going to church, out to eat, etc. She herself was in recovery, so out of respect for her, I cut back on my drinking and she convinced me to eat healthy. After eating and drinking whatever I’d wanted for years, “eating healthy” was tough, but I believe God put Kristina—and California, and everything that led me there—in my life for many reasons.
After a year in California, I moved back home to Boston, to a bedroom on the third floor of my family’s home. If Kristina’s influence wasn’t enough, let me tell you—it doesn’t take too many trips of huffing and puffing up three flights of stairs to tell me I needed to lose weight.
The [Real] Beginning
My number-one goal the first time I went to LA Fitness was to not make a fool of myself. I spent my time watching what others were doing and tried my best to emulate it. As time went on, I learned, and if I had a question, I learned to ask; I was surprised at everyone’s willingness to help. This constant support system in the people around me was a big reason why I kept going, even though I felt new and didn’t see many results—the friendships I made early on made me think Hmm, maybe I DO belong.
My trainer, Joe, showed me that this fitness lifestyle was for me. He took a great interest in my CP and designed a program around my challenges. I became like a sponge, trying to learn everything I could. Joe helped me find safe and effective ways to do whatever exercise I wanted to do. This gave me so much confidence.
Soon afterward, a good friend recommended Mike Boyle’s Strength and Conditioning—he said he’d seen I’d made progress at LA Fitness but that Mike Boyle’s could help out even more. The prospect of starting over at a new gym send that same jolt of nerves and fears through me; all I could think about was that the trainers at Mike Boyle’s work with professional athletes. But, as Mrs. Thur would have recommended, I went for it.
From the start, I could tell that my new trainer, Ken, was very interested in doing his best to help me better myself and my fitness. Like Joe, he worked around my challenges and found ways to adapt the exercises. We started out going really slow and I remember thinking What the heck I’m not even sweating. But Ken was teaching me important lessons—and sure enough, he soon had me doing split squats, and then split squats with a 15-pound vest, and then with a twenty-pound vest, and then with incorporated rear-foot elevations (RFEs). My legs were getting stronger. I was getting stronger.
Outside of the gym, I received leg braces—Ken helped me train for and with them by using a medicine-ball rack as a simulated walker. One morning, I told Ken, “Man, it would be cool to walk a 5K,” and he said, “Okay, let’s make that a goal.” He had me end every workout by pushing a medicine-ball rack across the floor like a simulated walker.
While pushing the rack across the floor, we came up with the idea of starting an organization and hosting a walk to benefit Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). I chose the name Handi Capable Fitness because__________________. I chose BCH because that’s where I had my surgeries as a child. In that quick moment, I had three new (massive) goals: Establish Handi Capable Fitness, organize the benefit walk, and get to the point where I myself could walk that 5K.
As the 5K date rolled closer, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to walk it, which was a hard pill to swallow. But, this benefit wasn’t supposed to be for me—it was for the kids at BCH and for every person who gave me the confidence to do something, and do something big. This walk embodied exactly what Handi Capable Fitness was supposed to be—A way to show people that no matter the challenge, you can still get after it. Ken helped me set a personal goal of one lap around the track. I did three laps.
My whole fitness journey has inspired me to learn more so I can help other adaptive athletes (which I call handi-capable athletes) achieve their goals. HCF has become a platform for me to do this as effectively as I possibly can. Through HCF, I now communicate with folks from Boston, from all corners of the US, and from all around the world. I’ve participated in and assisted others through Spartan Races, lost more than 50 pounds, climbed 40-foot rock walls, and am in the gym 1-2 times a day. I push my own physical limits to show myself and the HCF community that with the right mindset, the right community, and the right motivations, there is literally nothing that can hold us back.
Handi Capable Fitness exists to help, inspire, and highlight others who are faced with challenges. No challenge should stop someone from doing amazing things.