2010-07-08 / Front Page

Islander ‘powers through’ disability to reach national games

By Iain Wilson

Norm Marsh prepares for his bench press during the 2010 Special Olympics games held in June at the Ryan Center at URI. Marsh broke a state record for the third year in a row and will soon compete in the Special Olympics National Games in Nebraska. Norm Marsh prepares for his bench press during the 2010 Special Olympics games held in June at the Ryan Center at URI. Marsh broke a state record for the third year in a row and will soon compete in the Special Olympics National Games in Nebraska. In just a week’s time, Norm Marsh will board a private jet sponsored by CVS at T.F. Green Airport, bound for Lincoln, Neb.

The direct flight will be the first time that 20-year-old Norm boards an aircraft, but there’s another reason for great excitement.

Norm is headed to Lincoln – along with a handful of other Rhode Islanders – to compete in the Special Olympics 2010 National Games.

His event? The bench press.

Norm, a power lifter, was born with spina bifida – a congenital hole in his spine – a condition that leaves him without feeling from the knees down. He may struggle up the stairs of the plane, but a flight of stairs isn’t going to keep him from his dream.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘normal’ because what’s normal nowadays anyways?” he asks from the front porch of his North End home.

After six years of competing in basketball, softball, and track and field events in the Special Olympics, Norm picked up his first weight. He chuckles as he talks about his first bench press, seven years ago.

“I literally almost threw the weight out of the room,” he said.

In the seven years since, he has racked up a handful of state records and enough gold medals to make Michael Phelps blush.

Each summer – around Memorial Day – the University of Rhode Island hosts the state Special Olympic games, and Norm has been tearing up the circuit. In 2008, he broke a 17-year-old state record by hoisting 215 pounds. He’s since broken his own records in 2009 and 2010, bench pressing 231 and 231.5 pounds, respectively.

As for 2011?

He’s feeling good, he said.

“Next year, I hope to break it for a fourth year, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself,” he said.

His preparation for nationals is intense, with Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays spent lifting at either Riverbend Gym in Wakefi eld or Bridge to Fitness in Middletown. He notes that no workout is complete without a little extra emphasis on his triceps.

He’s been sticking to a strict diet of broiled chicken, broccoli, white rice and oatmeal – the latter of which his father, Tim, says could be used to wallpaper the house.

Norm’s goal is to reach a svelte 148 pounds for the competition, enabling him to avoid the beefier lifters in the 156-pound division. He hopes to bench between 245 and 250 at nationals, where the likes of Harrison Ford and Phil Mickelson will take in the competition.

He said the benefits of lifting extend way beyond the gym.

“It’s helped me a lot with confi- dence,” he said.

Since he has no feeling in the lower part of his legs, he wears ankle-foot orthoses – braces – on his lower legs at all times. A shunt responsible for regulating spinal fluid runs from his skull to his stomach, leaving a small bump on the upper portion of Norm’s skull.

“Honestly, I just try and do the things that everyone else does,” Norm said.

Spina bifida prevents Norm from running or jumping, and he walks with the help of sleek carbon fiber Sidekick crutches made by his coach, John Smythe.

Doctors told his father that Norm would need leg braces from the waist down by age 12, and would likely struggle to walk, but Norm was strutting with a walker by the time he was 4. He graduated Narragansett High in 2008, where he served as the football manager, and received a Hometown Hero award and Presidential Academic Award.

Of his son, Tim said, “He’s my hero. He’s an inspiration.”

When he’s not tossing up massive amounts of weight or inspiring others, Norm said he enjoys watching the Pittsburgh Steelers and Boston Red Sox, eagerly anticipating his career as a baseball broadcaster.

Greece will host the Special Olympics World Games in 2011, and though there are still plenty of obstacles, don’t expect Norm Marsh to go down without a fight.

“When you try, you can achieve everything,” he said.

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