Former Rainier grad, Army sergeant posthumously inducted into Wrestling Hall of Fame

Justin Norton enshrined in Medal of Courage category


As Rainier High School wrestling head coach Chris Holterman perused the Washington Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in the winter of 2022, he was surprised to see plaques of wrestlers who later served in the military.

He always thought the chapter was just for coaches and officials. Upon this site, Holterman considered nominating one of his former wrestlers for the Medal of Courage honor: Sgt. Justin Norton, a 2003 RHS graduate who was killed in action by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 24, 2006, at the age of 21.

Shortly after returning home from Stillwater, Holterman told Norton’s mother, Chris Warnock, that he wanted to nominate Norton, and they moved forward with the application process. On May 4, 2024, Norton was officially inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in the Medal of Courage category at the induction banquet at the Federal Way Performing Arts Center. 

He is the only RHS coach or competitor enshrined in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Warnock accepted the award on her son’s behalf.

“I’m just really glad that Justin’s legacy continues. It’s definitely a lasting legacy. To date, we’ve given away over $114,000 to Rainier and Yelm high school students in his memory. It’s his legacy,” she said.

In 2011, RHS renamed its annual wrestling tournament the Sgt. Justin Norton Memorial Wrestling Tournament. A two-mile section of Highway 507 was renamed in Norton’s honor as Sgt. Justin D. Norton Memorial Highway, and there is a mural on the nearby train trestle with his likeness.

Norton’s military awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army Achievement Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Army Service Ribbon and more.

While Holterman said Norton was not a state placer or a superstar wrestler while at Rainier, he held valuable roles on the team.

“Every team needs someone who is upbeat and always lifts up others. Every team needs someone who can lighten the atmosphere when it is a little too intense. Every team needs someone who will do whatever is asked to make the team better. Every team needs someone with incredible determination and resilience. Every teammate needs that one person that gets along with everyone and is there for you. Justin was all of these things and more,” he said.

Gary Warnock, Norton’s stepfather, said he and his wife are thankful to Holterman for nominating Norton and doing the legwork to make his induction possible, as well as speaking on behalf of Norton during the induction banquet. Norton’s induction includes a plaque that will be hung in Stillwater, along with a green jacket that inductees receive.

“I think Holterman’s speech in speaking about Justin laid it all out, his loyalty, his friendship and his ethics. He did a great job,” Gary Warnock said. “He used to live a couple of doors down from us, and when Justin would walk to school, Coach would pick him up and drive him to school. He was a good friend.”

Holterman described Norton as a “true champion, on and off the mat” and that he exhibited the same leadership and tenacity in the U.S. Army as he did on the wrestling mat.

“He didn’t need a gold medal around his neck to show he was a champion. He just lived like one daily,” Holterman said. “It was an honor to have coached Justin. It was an honor to nominate him for the Hall of Fame, and it was an honor to speak on his behalf at the ceremony.”