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From gang member to Olympic hopeful

September 15, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY — Team USA jumper Norris Frederick spoke for about 30 minutes Thursday morning to students at Michigan City High School, and spent just as long handing out candy, speaking and taking pictures with students.

The three-time indoor bronze medalist and most decorated athlete in the history of Washington state, spoke to a full house at the high school’s auditorium on his life growing up in Seattle – part of La Porte-based American Licorice Company’s “Embrace Your Punch” campaign.

In partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Northwest Indiana, Frederick spoke on “acceptance and self-love” – two of the focal points for the upcoming National Bullying Prevention Month.

“I go into these areas across the country where these kids have no options or their options are very limited,” Frederick said. “When you start speaking about a ton of stuff that they can’t relate to, they immediately check out. The biggest thing for me is to try and find common ground and build from that.”

Frederick’s upbringing was eventful, living in a Volkswagen with a drug-addicted mother and two of his three brothers. Fighting was a common release of anger for Frederick, which eventually led to his school’s principal telling him that “by the time you’re 16 years old, you’ll be behind bars forever.”

“I was a huge bully growing up,” Frederick told the crowd. “I was always the first to show power and dominance over somebody.”

After moving to a safer neighborhood with his family, Frederick played basketball in middle and high school, and it was a punishment for missing a team bus prior to a game that made him start to participate in track and field.

The punishment turned into a blessing, as Frederick quickly became the best high jumper in Washington with a jump of 6 feet, 8 inches during the very first meet he participated in for Roosevelt High School. He later became a five-time state champion in the high and long jump events.

When his basketball coach told him he never thought a punishment would eventually turn into state-wide success – and eventually a scholarship to the University of Washington – Frederick replied in a way that former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch would be proud of.

“I’m about this action, coach,” Frederick exclaimed, leading to some laughter from the crowd.

During his freshman year at Washington, Frederick received a call from his mother in the wee hours of the morning that his father had been stabbed to death. His father’s death changed him and brought a dark cloud over his life, eventually resulting in him quitting jumping for Washington and affiliating himself with a gang he’d joined prior to college.

After a heart-to-heart with Huskies head coach Greg Metcalf, and a surprise visit from his mother, Frederick found his purpose again.

“I won’t allow you to become a product of your enviroment,” Metcalf told Frederick.

“I was in huge debt with that guy,” Frederick said. “He has 120 athletes and he took the time to speak to just one. I felt like I owed him everything. He saved me. I was gonna go right back to the gang life and doing dumb stuff. He didn’t know that. He didn’t come from the areas I come from. He doesn’t know the things that I know. He really did save me.”

Similar to Metcalf’s talk with Frederick as a freshman, Frederick’s end goal as a motivational speaker isn’t a gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. It’s about getting people to hear a positive message, and then acting on it.

“My end goal isn’t being on the podium at the Olympics or winning every medal,” Frederick told the students. “It’s about giving a message to people who may need to hear it. My story may not resonate with everyone and that’s OK. But my hope is that some will hear the message and do something with it.”

Inspiration in the skies

After speaking at Michigan CIty High School on Thursday morning, Olympic hopeful Norris Frederick and Kristi Schafer of American Licorice Co. in La Porte also spoke at the inaugural “Night of Flight” event, and a “Hanging by the Hangar” youth event at Gary Chicago International Airport.

The evening celebration featured inspirational speeches and videos for kids in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana, helicopter rides, private jet tours and silent auctions.

The video presentation included personal stories from Frederick, and showcased stories from members of the Boys & Girls Clubs, including Youth of The Year Winner Azariah Avery of the Duneland club. Sponsored by American Licorice’s Sour Punch Candy, the “Embrace Your Punch” anti-bullying message emphasized self-acceptance and self-love through personal stories of trials and triumph.

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