'Norwich' is the town that grows Olympians

How valuing development over winning helped a town become an Olympic pipeline.

Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town's Secret to Happiness and Excellence By Karen Crouse Simon & Schuster 288 pp.

Norwich, a hamlet with a population of 3,414 nestled in the hills of northern Vermont, seems at first glance a typical New England small town. Colonial buildings line the main street. Farms ring the outskirts. But in at least one way, Norwich is an anomaly: Since 1984, it’s been represented on almost every US Winter Olympics team. Two local athletes have also gone to the Summer Olympics.

“Statistically improbable” doesn’t even begin to describe the likelihood that one small town could produce this many Olympians. It’s true that the snowy winters and the local practice of getting children started skiing and ice skating before they’re 6 make Norwich a natural training ground for winter sports – but that’s true of countless New England towns.  

New York Times journalist Karen Crouse finds the roots of Norwich’s Olympic success in a simple paradox: Its young athletes are taught that there are more important things than winning.

In Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence, Crouse describes a local parenting culture that focuses on children’s personal development rather than success. In an age when many children with outstanding athletic talent are pushed by parents to specialize, the youth of Norwich, no matter how gifted, switch to other sports with the change of seasons. And on local kids’ teams, everyone willing, not just the best, gets to play.

The roots of Norwich’s athletic culture arguably can be traced to Ford and Peggy Sayre, who founded a local ski academy in the 1930s. The Sayres not only admitted children of families who couldn’t pay fees or buy equipment, they also encouraged local girls to attend.

The Sayres’ coaching emphasized improvement. To get better was, in and of itself, success, a philosophy similar to that of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics – “the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” This de-emphasis on winning, and the idea that athletes compete only with their prior performance, is one of the keys, in Crouse’s view, to Norwich’s production of world-class athletes.

The other is local support. Crouse recounts innumerable touching examples of Norwich’s community spirit. According to Crouse, Michael Holland, a ski jumper in the 1984 and 1998 Winter Olympics, got his start in the sport when his slightly older neighbor, Jeff Hastings, dropped off his outgrown jumpingequipment at Holland’s home, saying, “You need to try this.”

When Hannah Kearney, winner of a gold medal for mogul skiing at the 2010 Winter Olympics, was a teenager, she needed financial help to attend national skiing competitions. A millionaire with connections to the town offered to pay on two conditions: She was to provide detailed accounts of her expenditures, and she was to send him her grades every semester.  Kearney recalls, “It was all about my report cards – not my ski results.”

Crouse also cites literature on child development that indicates Norwich does have lessons for the rest of the country, from the pressure-cooker high schools that routinely send graduates to the Ivy League to overly competitive soccer moms.

The lessons of “Norwich” are inspiring and compelling, but the book also includes occasional instances of truly awful writing. Most often, Crouse’s style is competent and workmanlike. But she is enamored of clichés and sometimes remakes them in cringe-inducing ways. (It was “love at first flight” for a young snowboarder.)

Another problem: Crouse seems so besotted with the town that it makes one automatically distrust her. Can any town be so perfect? One can’t help but feel Crouse lacks perspective.

To be fair, she does, for contrast, recount the lives of the Snite sisters, who, driven by their obsessive father to devote their youth to skiing, achieved some success but led troubled, unhappy lives.  

However, Crouse seems oblivious to the larger questions raised by Norwich’s uniqueness: She readily admits it is overwhelmingly white (88 percent) and prosperous (the median household income is $89,000).  

Social cohesion of the sort Crouse describes is most common in racially homogeneous communities, particularly ones in which families have lived side by side for generations. As the town gentrifies, and as its inhabitants are increasingly newcomers who will soon move somewhere else to further their careers, Crouse asks herself, “Can Norwich continue to be Norwich?”

She should consider the reality that racially and economically homogeneous small towns increasingly belong to our nation’s past and not its future. A better question would be: Could a more diverse town become a Norwich?

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