Danzig “Ziggy” Norberg is like many world-class athletes. A member of several U.S. national teams in his sport of canoe/kayak, he trains six days a week, sometimes twice a day. He’s in the gym five times a week. And he and his family have sacrificed much to allow him to pursue his passion for the sport he loves.

Though he was born with spina bifida, he doesn’t see that as an excuse for not being able to excel. “I’ve always had a positive attitude about my disability. I’ve never seen it as a bad thing, or felt sorry for myself,” Norberg said. “It’s a thing — people have their things, and this is one of my things.”

Norberg, who finished seventh this past summer in the Paralympic World Championships in the 200 meter sprint canoe/kayak event called the va’a — an outrigger canoe with a single pontoon — shared his experience with the participants, coaches and spectators at the opening ceremony for the 11th annual DisABILITY Sports Festival on Oct. 7 at Cal State San Bernardino.

Some 700 participants, assisted by 700 volunteers and cheered on by hundreds more, attended the free all-day event at the university’s Coussoulis Arena and surrounding athletic fields and facilities that promotes physical activity and sports for people of all ages, with any disability, injury or illness.

Since the first event in 2006, it has grown to become one of the largest cross ability events for people with any disability in the country.

One of the things that the festival aims to do is “educate everyone that a disability does not mean an inability,” said Guillermo Escalante, co-director of the festival and an assistant professor of kinesiology at CSUSB. “We want to be able to give people an opportunity to do everything, and to push themselves to their limits.”

Anthony Lara has coached wheelchair tennis for all 11 years of the festival. A member of national teams in tennis, table tennis and wheelchair basketball, Lara introduces people to the sport of wheelchair tennis at similar events 20 times a year. Yet the DisABILITY Sports Festival stands out.

Lara, born with spina bifida, credited the event’s founder, Aaron Moffett, who was a member of the CSUSB kinesiology faculty and who this past summer was the Team USA coach for the Wounded Warrior group that competed in the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada. He referred to Moffett as the “mad scientist,” but in a very complimentary way, because of his vision to create an event that brings together so many sports in one place, with the goal of inclusiveness.

“If you’re in a chair, great. If you’re not, great,” Lara said. “If you have special needs, or if you have a caretaker, or if you’re 80 years old, or if you’re 8 years old — it brings all the disabled together in one place, and we use the power of sport as that linking bridge to promote what I call living a healthy and productive lifestyle.”

Hundreds of participants were introduced to and competed in 24 different sports, including archery, wheelchair and standing basketball, tennis, soccer, wall climbing, skateboarding, swimming and hand cycling. Each sport and activity was coached by an athlete with a disability, including Paralympians, and other elite-level coaches, which, organizers say, really is a display of all the participants’ abilities.

Robert Nunez, a karate instructor from Claremont, was one of the coaches. A CSUSB alumnus (master’s degrees in rehabilitation counseling in 2007, career and technical education in 2009), it was his first year at the event as a coach.

“The important thing is inclusion, about understanding that everyone has talents,” he said. “For me, particularly, in the martial arts, it’s described as an art as opposed to a sport. The difference being sports typically promote competition amongst others. In the arts, the competition is focused within the self.

“So when you talk about an adaptive sport, martial arts are adapted for all abilities,” Nunez said. “I’m an old guy. I can only do certain things. It doesn’t mean that I cannot work on myself at all times. The same thing with people who have disabilities — the challenge for them is to be the most they can be. So we assist them in finding that within themselves. That’s how marital arts play a crucial role in the development of everyone, including those with disabilities.”

Just because a sport is labeled as “adaptive” doesn’t mean it’s any easier, said Norberg who, when not out on the water or in the gym, is studying pre-law, with an emphasis on sports and disability, at Evergreen State College. “I train just as hard, if not harder, because of what I have to deal with,” he said. “It’s not easy. I’m not taking on some lesser version of the sport.”

Yet people have a tendency to impose limits on athletes like him, mostly with preconceived or ill-conceived ideas.

“I had a coach a few years ago who was giving my mom and me a ride to the airport because I was going to Italy to compete in the world championships in paracanoeing,” he recalled. “And his parting words to me before we left were, ‘It doesn’t really matter how you do in the world championships, because you’re not a real athlete anyway. So just have fun.’”

Because it was still early in the morning before a long flight, he didn’t fully comprehend the impact of the coach’s words until a little later. Norberg expressed disappointment, because that coach had worked with him as he poured his heart into the rigorous training to get to the world-class level. Undaunted, he went on to finish sixth in his event.

And this past summer, at the 2017 Paracanoe World Championships in Racice, Czech Republic, Norberg became the only athlete on the U.S. national kayak/canoe team — abled bodied or Paralympian — to make, and place, in a world finals competition. His sights are now set on competing in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo in the va’a.

It’s that kind of effort, that kind of attitude, which prompted retired Major League Baseball pitcher Dennis Powell to call the participants “super heroes.” The former Los Angeles Dodger, formally opening the festival, said, “Each and every one of you has a gift that is out of this world. Some of you have more than one. … You are capable or more than what you think you can do.”

To find that gift, Norberg offered this: “What I hope you take away from today is for you to find your passion, whether it’s sports or something else. Find your passion in whatever it is you want to do, and do it with everything you’ve got.”

The DisABILITY Sports Festival is run completely from the donations and support from donors and sponsors. To donate or sponsor, and for more information about the festival, visit the DisABILITY Sports Festival website, email sportfes@csusb.edu, or call (909) 537-5352.

For more information about the university, contact the CSUSB Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit news.csusb.edu.