Bernardo “Berny” Norzagaray does not mind eating Special K bars while his friends at Coronado High School are enjoying pizza, hamburgers and potato chips. He doesn’t even mind staying home while his classmates attend football games or go out to watch a movie.
They’ll be plenty of time for that after his run at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil is over.
Berny, a 10th-grader at Coronado, won his second consecutive U.S. Open Taekwondo Championship in Las Vegas on Feb. 23. This weekend, he will represent Team USA at the German Open in Hamburg.
“I think not eating what I like is the toughest thing about taekwondo,” the 15-year-old said. “I have to train a lot, and make sure I eat the right things so I can make my weight.
I have to stay disciplined and stay committed to reach my goal of making the U.S. Olympic team.”
Berny is a two-time U.S. Open junior bantam champion (under 51 kilos, or 112 pounds) in the 14- to 17-year old-division.
“I like fighting and I like it when I’m in the ring,” he said. “I love this sport. I love winning. It’s something I can’t explain.”
Berny is the top-ranked junior bantamweight in the United States. Winning his matches this weekend in Germany would make him one of best in the world in his age group.
“I’ve had to sacrifice a lot, my diet being the biggest thing,” he said. “I train every day of the week, and sometimes I can’t go out with my friends or do the normal things kids my age do. But I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything. I’m living my dream so I don’t feel as if I’m wasting my time.”
Berny was introduced to taekwondo when he was 5 years old.
“I used to train myself,” said Bernardo Norzagaray, Berny’s father. “My youngest son, Juan Carlos, is 12 years old and he has already won two gold medals at the Junior Olympics and two silver medals at the World Taekwondo Open. He is following in his brothers’ footsteps. I was never as good as my sons.”
During the past 10 years Berny has won several national and international gold medals.
“Every father knows what his son is capable of,” Norzagaray said. “I noticed at an early age how competitive he was. I used to race cars, and when he was 9 or 10 years old, he loved to race with me. We bought an ATV and we started getting into ATV racing, and he was really good at that.”
But the focus has always been taekwondo
“Since he was really young, he always wanted to be first. It didn’t matter what he was doing, he just knew he wanted to finish first,” Norzagaray said. “Coaches from all over the world have approached me and told me they’ve never seen a kid with so much heart. He is determined to win, and that’s what makes Berny dangerous to his competitors. He is a very competitive kid.”
Berny has trained at Optimum Taekwondo Training in El Paso with master Mario Romero from the very first lesson 10 years ago.
“He is an incredible talent,” Romero said. “He has a great passion for this sport, and that makes him a very strong competitor.”
Romero said taekwondo is one the most popular of the martial arts and the only martial art in the Olympics.
Taekwondo is a combination of combat and self-defense techniques with sport and exercise. It is known for its emphasis on kicking techniques, which distinguishes it from martial arts such as karate or southern styles of kung fu.
“To be at the level he is, it requires lot of training and dedication on his part,” Romero said. “As a coach, you really need to know what you’re doing. The way we are training him is very different. It’s not just the technical aspect but also the physical and mental aspects. He is training two to three hours daily. He also goes to the gym for weight training. There are many things you can do. There is flexibility training, cardio — there are a number of specific training devices we use on him.”
Berny works hard, always with that ultimate goal of representing the United States at the 2016 Olympics.
“He has talked about competing against the world’s best in the Olympics since he was 9 years old,” Romero said. “He is always challenging himself, always looking for the best competition in the world. If he is exposed to high-level competition, that is the key for athletes like him to be at the elite level.”
The road to Rio de Janeiro is long, but it’s one that Berny is looking forward to.
“I have another year of fighting in the junior division (14 to 17 years old) before I move up to the senior division, which is 18 to 32 years old, the Olympic age,” he said. “I’ll be 18 years old when the next Olympics comes around, and I want to be there.”
That winning feeling
After each tournament win — and there have been plenty in his decade of taekwondo competition — he still reacts the same when the championship bout is done and his arms are raised.
“The first thing that always comes to mind is all the hard work, the dieting and all the sacrifices I have made,” Berny said. “Then the happiness sets in and the excitement of the moment takes over. If it’s a really big tournament, sometimes I cry. Only one person gets to finish on top, and there are so many people trying to be on top. When you are the best, it’s an unbelievable feeling. Sometimes it seems impossible, but it makes it all worthwhile.”