Jennifer Norton, Radford University’s assistant athletics director for sports performance, has been battling cancer since shortly after her arrival in Radford. She has fought so long and so hard that she recently received the news she was cancer free.
As a result, the university presents the Jennifer Norton Courage Award in her honor.
Norton is not one to take curtain calls. Instead, for her, the rewards for come in the milestones reached and the victories earned by the athletes she works with.
“[The athletes’] faces when they win, that means everything to me,” Norton says. “I don’t care if they ever say ‘Coach Norton you helped us get here,’ I know deep down that I played a big part in helping them get to that point.”
Norton insists on demonstrating two qualities to her athletes to help make that connection with them: fearlessness and vulnerability.
“There are two types of people in the world,” Norton said. “You’re either giving energy or you’re taking energy. There’s no in-between. I feel like my role is giving it all the time.”
Norton sets the tone of the room when she walks in, and even in a short conversation it is not hard to understand how that energy rubs off on the athletes.
Women’s basketball head coach Mike McGuire said of Norton, “It is so easy to be motivated when you are around Coach Norton. It is a privilege to work alongside her, and I know our ladies feel the same way.”
Norton says her day-to-day life hasn’t changed despite the news that she is cancer-free. She still takes her treatment every day and will still receive treatment for the foreseeable future. But there she is, every day, in the Dedmon Center weight room, putting all of herself into her work. To say she’s fearless seems like an understatement.
It’s important, too, for Norton not to lose sight of the vulnerability of being human. That vulnerability is the other side of the coin which allows her to connect with and gain the trust of the athletes she works with.
“I think I show the athletes that I’m a real person and that I don’t care how I look out there [during workouts],” said Norton. “I make sure that they understand that I’m not over them, I’m more commanding the room and trying to get them to find the energy in themselves.
“I don’t need [coaches and athletes] to pat me on the back,” Norton said, “but I want them to know that I’m here to help them be the best version of themselves. My one true wish is for them to see that it’s okay to have faults.. Nobody is perfect, and I relate a lot of that to the stuff I’ve been going through the last couple of years.”
Before being promoted to her director’s role earlier this year, Norton came to Radford from her alma mater, Florida Atlantic University, in August 2018 to be an assistant strength and conditioning coach. She was diagnosed with cancer five months later, and in April 2019, Norton got a surprise: The Jennifer Norton Courage Award.
The university hands out the award to an individual who has possessed strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of trial, and the willingness to display positivity following a hardship. Norton didn’t know ahead of time that the award would be first given in 2019. She wasn’t even going to go to the RUBY Awards that year. The ceremony is an annual event that honors Radford’s student-athletes for their achievements in the classroom, in competition, and in the community. Norton’s mom was in town to help her go to doctor appointments, and she was so sick that she didn’t think she could go. But she was convinced to go.
“Coach Bennett kept asking me, [saying] ‘you need to go,'” said Norton. “So it was like a last minute thing and we went. I remember just breaking down crying. It was like I knew and understood that Radford had my back.”
That trust continues to motivate Norton, who keeps her courage award on a shelf behind her desk as a reminder in the times she gets down of what this is all about.
“If I ever have one ounce of ‘I’m not feeling it today,’ it’s almost like I tell myself [the athletes] are counting on me to be my best,” Norton says. “It’s not a negative stress like they are counting on me, or that I have to fake it, it’s more of—hopefully I have taught them to allow yourself to make a mistake and look stupid doing it. I teach them to laugh at everything. If you can’t laugh at yourself you’re going to have a miserable life.”