By Karen Crouse
The road to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, runs through Norwich, a hilly and wooded family-oriented farming community tucked between Interstates 89 and 91 in rural Vermont. With a main street lined with white clapboard colonial buildings and a landmark steepled church, Norwich could be a set designer’s rendering of a tiny New England village.
Yet despite its apparent ordinariness, Norwich is home to a probabilities puzzle for the statistics students at Dartmouth College, less than two miles away as the hermit thrush flies.
This town of roughly 3,000 residents has accounted for three Olympic medals, and, since 1984, has put an athlete on all but one United States Winter Olympics team. It has also sent two athletes to the Summer Olympics. In all, Norwich has produced 11 Olympians — an even dozen if you count the snowboarder Kevin Pearce, and the townspeople would never dream of overlooking Pearce, who sustained a career-ending head injury a little more than a month before the 2010 Winter Olympics, where he was expected to contend for a gold medal.
The town’s outsize success in Olympic sports has much to do with the way it rears its children, helping them succeed without causing burnout or compromising their future happiness. The town’s Olympic pipeline, perhaps incongruously, is a product of a collective mind-set that the Olympics are not the pinnacle of an athlete’s life but merely a fun stop on the way to achieving other longer-lasting dreams.
Norwich is not representative of the country as a whole. It is overwhelmingly white and mostly affluent. With its population of professors and doctors, Norwich has the demographic — the wealth and the driven personalities — to be at the vanguard of the helicopter-parenting movement. And yet the town has largely opted out of the athletic and academic arms races being waged elsewhere, and almost by accident, has created a culture that seems to serve as the perfect incubator for developing the ideal Olympic athlete. Norwich parents do not turn their offspring into miners panning for an Olympic medal, a college scholarship or a professional career, though many do find such golden opportunities.
Instead the town has managed to help its athletes be not only purposeful, but also happy in their post-sports lives.
The steeple of Norwich Congregational Church, seen from the town’s Cemetery Hill.CreditOliver Parini
I was reminded of how much the Norwich model matters when I returned home from covering the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Several of my friends told me they hadn’t bothered watching the competition. They were over the Olympics as must-see TV and were talking about the event as if it were a reality show they had once enjoyed immensely but now found fraudulent.
So many unsympathetic characters! So many farcical story lines! How could they root for athletes with cartoonish muscles who were likely to win medals only to later fail tests for performance-enhancing drugs? They expressed a nostalgic longing for the star swimmers and runners of their youth, who seemed more accessible and personable and less greedy and entitled. The consensus was that the Olympic movement was buckling under the weight of its excesses.
Norwich is why all is not lost. How could you not root for the ski jumper Mike Holland, who progressed from “a flying sack of potatoes” — a label slapped on him when he was an ungainly young competitor — to a two-time Olympian in ski jumping? Or Andrew Wheating, who found his way to the track as a high school senior and less than three years later ran in the Summer Games in Beijing? Then there is the town’s first Olympic champion, Hannah Kearney, who overcame her aversion to back flips to become a trailblazing moguls skier.
Holland, Wheating, Kearney and the other Norwich Olympians went for broke in their sports but didn’t get rich — and they didn’t much care. The sports enriched their lives, and that was what drove them.
Norwich is a place with deep agrarian roots, and that still shows. The town was founded in 1761 as a farming community. While farmers were eventually replaced by doctors, academicians and other white-collar workers employed by nearby Dartmouth College and its hospital, Norwich remained true to the tenets set forth by the original homesteaders — hardworking people who did not manipulate their crops to make them turn out a certain way or try to accelerate the growth of their animals by injecting them with chemicals. Instead, Norwich’s residents have simply made judicious use of the resources on offer.
For the most part, the Olympians of Norwich did not sacrifice their childhoods by specializing in one pursuit to hasten their progress. They grew up changing activities with the seasons. The sports that offer the greatest exposure in America, and therefore the greatest potential for fame and fortune, are not the sports that typically capture the imaginations of Vermonters, who are known for their fiercely independent, contrarian personalities. The chain of homegrown Olympians includes no figure skaters, perhaps the most glamorous of the winter athletes. Instead, Norwich is brimming with ski jumpers and freestyle skiers throwing caution to the wind and pushing the boundaries of risk and reward.
Norwich supports its athletes in many ways, including closing the elementary school early every Wednesday in the winter so families can ski together.CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The town benefits from its proximity to Dartmouth, in Hanover, N.H., whose relationship with the surrounding community is a model of how a well-off educational institution can give back. Athletes and staff members volunteer their time to work with the youth in the area at a ski school that was started in the late 1930s by a Dartmouth graduate to introduce local children to the sport. The college-owned Skiway, which opened in the late 1950s and has more than 100 acres of skiable terrain, was the childhood playground of most of the Norwich Olympians. The university’s 45-meter jump where Jeff Hastings, a 1984 Olympic ski jumper, and Holland honed their skills as teenagers has been dismantled, but young skiers can still take flight at Hanover’s Oak Hill, where Hastings and Holland volunteer as instructors.
The Olympic athletes from the town don’t seem in any hurry to leave. With few exceptions, when their competitive careers are over they unpack their bags and stay put, because they want their offspring to enjoy childhoods similar to their own. They join family businesses or hang their own shingles and serve as instructors on the side. By staying, they become living monuments for the younger generations, who grow so accustomed to seeing Olympians in their midst that they consider the Olympics almost a rite of passage.
Norwich is not tightly tethered to technology. Cellular and internet connectivity remains spotty, which helps explain why many of the townspeople I talked to carried flip phones in their purses or pockets. Why buy a smartphone when its bells and whistles are effectively silenced by hills and forests? The townspeople have their favorite chat rooms and social platforms, but these are physical spaces — in the aisles of the general store, at the gym or the downstairs meeting room in Tracy Hall, in the shops along Main Street.
Norwich does have a time-warp feel to it that extends beyond its potholed information superhighway. The town’s de facto chamber of commerce is the family-owned general store, Dan & Whit’s, whose slogan could double as the town motto: “If We Don’t Have It, You Don’t Need It.” The gathering spot has been the site of at least three weddings, with Dan Fraser, who runs the store, officiating at a makeshift altar between the narrow aisles of flannel shirts and work pants. The store’s currency is trust, with groceries added to a running tab that is paid off at the end of each month. For the town’s poorest residents, the 6 percent who live below the poverty line, their debt, more often than not, is quietly forgiven.
Even though Norwich is relatively affluent, its model has always been one of equity. Nearly two decades before Dartmouth welcomed the first women in its freshman class, the town’s first homegrown Olympian, the 1956 and 1960 Alpine skier Betsy Snite, grew up skiing alongside the college men. The Ford Sayre program, where all the Norwich Winter Olympians got their start, was one of the first children’s ski programs in the country, offering instruction to girls in an era when beauty still trumped brawn, as borne out by sports events that included pageants as part of the competition.
Norwich is also generous in helping neighbors who are less well off. It is the kind of place where a man dies and leaves his estate to the town with the condition that his money be used to ensure that no child endures a winter without a new pair of mittens. People contribute money for scholarships for drawing, painting, photography and writing classes. Or they volunteer to flood the town green during the winter so that elementary school children can skate before and after school.
Kearney, the town’s first Olympic champion, probably would not have won a gold medal in the women’s moguls at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics if not for a benefactor she never met — the relative of a Norwich resident — who provided financial assistance to help her bridge the sizable difference between expenses for regional events and for national-level competition. When Kearney, not yet a teenager, had outgrown the local racing scene, her parents sat her down and explained that they could not afford to send her to races anywhere that required flights and hotel stays. If she wanted to continue, she was going to have to find sponsors. They left her to figure out the details.
Kearney considered herself blessed to grow up in a town where those with more gladly helped those with less. “You don’t find people using the town’s resources but not giving back,” Kearney said.
All her main benefactor asked in return for his financial assistance was that she provide him with a detailed annual budget showing how she had spent the money — a great lesson in both accountability and the value of a dollar — and with copies of her report cards.
Years later, Kearney’s mother would read a novel in which parents take out a second mortgage to finance the Olympic aspirations of their gymnast daughter. I’ve known parents who have gone to those lengths, but Kearney’s mother considered the work of fiction far-fetched. She couldn’t imagine risking the family’s financial well-being to support a child’s sports dreams. “Who would do that?” she said.
Every Wednesday during the winter, the elementary school in Norwich lets out early to facilitate family skiing. Children can ski alongside their parents or receive free instruction from Olympians. A mother of three told me that it is hard to steer her children away from the ski slopes when they have the opportunity to learn from the best.
Those hump days were the next best thing to snow days for Kearney. While her sport is increasingly populated by burnt-out gymnasts and divers who trade one obsession for another, Kearney embodied Norwich’s adherence to nature’s rhythms. She changed sports with the seasons. So did Tim Tetreault, a three-time Olympian in Nordic combined, whose decision not to attend high school at a specialized sports academy paved the way for a record feat in his senior year at Hanover High School in 1988.
Andrew Wheating, right, who grew up in Norwich, congratulating Yusuf Saad Kamel of Bahrain after a preliminary heat of the 800-meter run at the 2008 Olympics.CreditOlivier Morin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Tetreault teamed with a dozen of his classmates to break the Guinness world record for marathon leapfrogging, logging 888 miles over eight days of continuous jumping in alternating shifts. Years later, when Tetreault included the achievement on his résumé, he said prospective employers were more inquisitive about his role in the leapfrogging world record than about his three Olympics.
As a town, Norwich bucks the Darwinian view of youth sports that normalizes eliminating opportunities for all but the most skilled players. Even now in Norwich, recreational teams don’t make cuts, affording every youngster the chance to participate in different sports. Having spent my journalism career observing the antics of win-at-all-costs coaches while wedged in the bleachers alongside parents micromanaging their children’s play, I was not prepared for my first recreational league soccer game on the town’s fields at Huntley Meadow. I was talking to a couple when their son scored two goals in quick succession. After his second score, the coach motioned the boy over to the sideline and told him it was time to take a breather. He substituted another player for the boy, and neither parent challenged the decision. They continued talking to me as if the substitution was perfectly normal.
Norwich has a deep aversion to pushing its children too hard too soon. The public high school limits the number of Advanced Placement courses. The speed limit on the main road through town is 25 miles per hour, and a furor erupted on the community’s internet message board when speed bumps were installed on one road near the hiking trails to foster the safe coexistence of cars, joggers, dog walkers and bicycle riders. Underlying the argument against the speed bumps was the belief that any commuter who found the posted speed limit too restrictive was perhaps better off living somewhere faster paced.
Norwich’s steadfast encouragement provides the perfect platform for the kind of risk taking that launches innovators like Pearce and Kearney into the great unknown. When Kearney joined the Ford Sayre Ski School in the second grade, her parents filled out an application that asked for the best word to describe her skiing style. The choices were “cautious,” “average” and “aggressive.” They marked the “aggressive” box.
Kearney was one of those highly competitive athletes with a kind of compulsively motivated personality that is classically associated with champions. She might have become another victim of maladaptive perfectionism if not for Norwich townspeople’s efforts to slacken the pressure when she got wound up and to provide a soft landing after the inevitable failures.
In 2014, Kearney was favored to become the first back-to-back winner in women’s moguls. After she earned the bronze instead, the townspeople could plainly see how crestfallen she was. So they got together and organized a homecoming party for her, the theme of which was captured in a homemade felt banner that read, “Hannah Kearney, Norwich’s Hero, 2-time Olympic medalist, Making Us Proud the World Over.”
Norwich restored my flagging faith in Olympic sports. By 2014, as I muddled through the mess that was the Sochi Olympics, with its displaced citizenry, disappearing dogs, dilapidated accommodations and distressing price tag, my emotional tether to the competition was fraying. It was my ninth trip to the Olympics — 10th, if you count the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, where I volunteered as a hostess — and it was hard not to feel as if I were witnessing a grande dame’s last, gasping breaths. The Sochi Olympics rolled up a record tab of $51 billion and required a large army of police to secure. Russia gave the world an Olympics characterized by human-rights violations and a systemic doping program by the host country.
Where were the Olympians who were in it for the joy? I found them in Norwich, which seems to possess an old-fashioned tonic, replicable anywhere there is a communitarian spirit, to cure what ails contemporary sports. Like their farmer forebears with their crops, the parents of Norwich learned through trial and error the best methods of nourishing athletes who go on to productive and meaningful adulthoods as entrepreneurs, businesspeople, healers, coaches — and volunteers on the side. In a town where no one is a castoff, everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
“In Norwich,” said the runner, Wheating, “it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of all of us.”
Correction: December 30, 2017
An earlier version of a picture caption with this book excerpt reversed the identifications of the runners shown in one image. Andrew Wheating of Norwich, Vt., is on the right, and Yusuf Saad Kamel is on the left.
Follow Karen Crouse on Twitter: @bykaren
This article is an excerpt from the book “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence,” by Karen Crouse, a New York Times sportswriter. The book will be released Jan. 23.