This Small Vermont Town Makes A Big Olympic Impact

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"Norwich," by Karen Crouse. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Norwich," by Karen Crouse. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The town of Norwich, Vermont, has put an athlete on every U.S. Winter Olympic team but one since 1984.

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with New York Times sports reporter Karen Crouse (@bykaren), author of "Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town's Secret to Happiness and Excellence," about the town's unconventional approach to bringing up its athletes.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Norwich"

Interview Highlights

On Norwich's sports culture

"It's a culture built around multiple sports, no-cut leagues, community sportsmanship — all of the things that you think you can't have and also churn out athletes at the most proficient level. And yet this town, because of all of those characteristics, has managed to do it."

On the benefits of playing different sports, and how that helped two-time Olympic runner Andrew Wheating

"What the Norwich athletes found almost by accident is that by changing sports with the seasons, what they were doing is working different muscle groups, they were developing this overall sense of how their body moves. The best example I can give of that is Andrew Wheating. He was a basketball player in high school, and he really didn't like the other players elbowing him, he took it quite personally he said. And yet when he turned his attention to track, what he found is that when he was in a pack, he knew how to react. He knew how to get space, because he had been doing that on the basketball court, and that was a skill that easily transferred onto the track."

On snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who was on his way to challenging for a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Games before he suffered a career-ending brain injury

"It's funny, maybe people who are so concentrated on the end result — winning — may think that his story is a sad one. But I actually felt it was in many ways the most uplifting story in the book, because he is the first to admit that he is not only a better person for what he went through, but he is also impacting more people than he ever might have as an Olympic medalist. He has started a foundation, Love Your Brain, that works with those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries and their caregivers. And he attributes his ability to rebound directly to how he was raised: that because he was given so much freedom and independence, he developed resilience, because he had to pick himself up — often quite literally — from these falls, and that enabled him to get through one of the worst falls you can ever imagine experiencing."

"Norwich doesn't have a secret sauce that is unattainable elsewhere."

Karen Crouse

On mogul skier Hannah Kearney, who was told by her parents she'd need to raise her own money in order to continue skiing

"I love that story, because Hannah wrote up a resume and went on her bike and visited different community businesses and got a little bit of money that way. And then there was a man who was the father of one of the parents in town who heard about Hannah's situation, and he agreed to sponsor her. And all he asked in return is that she provide her report card to him every term, and also that she provide him with a detailed budget of how she spent every dollar that he gave her. How great is that? Here was Hannah, barely a teenager, and she was learning a) the value of money, and b) education was the most important thing."

On the potential for Norwich to change if parents move there in an effort to get their child to the Olympics

"I'm hoping that the opposite will happen, and that every community will try to replicate Norwich within its own borders. Norwich doesn't have a secret sauce that is unattainable elsewhere. Again, it's just a culture that is built around multiple sports, no-cut leagues. It's not just the fact that you're allowing anyone to participate. The best players on those no-cut teams are being sent a message that it isn't all about proficiency. It's about working together, it's about having empathy for those who aren't as good as you.

"Hannah said that she met girls in her kindergarten through sixth grade rec league teams that she would've never crossed paths with otherwise. They were girls who were in these sports mostly for the social piece of it. In any other circumstance, they might have been left on the sidelines. Instead, they became for Hannah some of her closest friends, and they really provided a balance for her when she was so self-involved in this Olympic piece, and thinking that every loss was a disaster. And they were able to lend her the perspective that kept her in the proper frame of mind."

Book Excerpt: 'Norwich'

By Karen Crouse

The road to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, runs through a pocket square of a town tucked between two interstates in the Eastern United States. Near the crossroads of the 89 and 91 freeways, occupying 44 square miles, lies Norwich, a hilly and wooded family-oriented farming community. With a main street lined with white clapboard Colonials and a steepled church, Norwich could be a set designer’s rendition of a small New England town. It is a cartographer’s challenge, barely registering on the map with its 1,367 households and musty gymnasium contained in a brick Colonial meeting house. What it has in abundance is room to roam. Norwich is four hours from New York City and two hours from Boston, but it's not all that popular as a second-home destination – the people who live there really live there.

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 from the town center. Since 1984, this town of roughly 3,000 residents has put a person on almost every U.S. Winter Olympic team and accounted for three medals. Like a groundhog poking its head out of it burrow every February, every four years the Norwich athletes leave the cozy, caring cocoon of their small town for the world’s stage.

And the town doesn’t lay fallow when the snow melts; it also has 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 life-threatening head injury shortly before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and was unable to compete. To put Norwich’s bountiful harvest in perspective, consider that Spain, with its population of 47 million, has won two Olympic medals in winter sports since 1936. New Zealand, home to steep mountains, a wide range of adventure sports and a population of 4.47 million, has earned one Olympic medal in winter sports. In 2010, Hannah Kearney, a freestyle skier, won the women’s moguls in Vancouver. She was the first Norwich athlete to strike Olympic gold. With that achievement, she soared over Bob Keeshan, the actor who played Captain Kangaroo on the popular children’s television show, as the town’s most celebrated resident. “Supposedly, 1 out of every 322 residents is an Olympian,” Hannah said in Vancouver, adding, “I don’t know if it’s the well water or what.”

The well water in Norwich is perfectly delicious, but the town’s outsize success in Olympic sports has more to do with the way it collectively raises its children. We can learn a lot from Norwich about how to help children succeed without burning them out. And the town has much to teach us about how to ensure that our children grow up to live rich and fulfilling lives in victory and defeat, through an emphasis on engagement, not outcome. The townspeople encourage their children to achieve, but they view success through multiple lenses. It is how harried parents across America would like to raise their children if not for the Tiger Moms in their midst.

But before exploring the power of Norwich as a model, let me make clear its limitations. The town is overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class, with a median household income in upwards of $90,000, well above the national average of $53,000. Situated across the Connecticut River from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Norwich is the town with the state’s highest median family income, prompting Jim Kenyon, a Valley News columnist and long-time resident, to describe Norwich as “Disney World with maple trees.” During my time there, I definitely picked up on a Frontierland vibe, with yurts and double-wide trailers sharing space with brick tudor mansions.

Where Norwich succeeds is as a guide for overwhelmed parents, no matter where they put down their roots, on how to raise kids to be happy champions and contented, productive adults. Almost by accident, the town created a culture, fertilized by old-fashioned values as much as well-used resources, which now serves as the perfect incubator for developing the ideal Olympic athlete, one who is nurtured both body and soul. The Norwich model is not fueled by starry-eyed parents pouring their savings, their dreams and their time into their children’s sporting endeavors. They do not turn their kids into minors panning for an Olympic medal, a college scholarship or a professional career, though many do strike gold. Populated by its share of professors and doctors drawn to the area by Dartmouth College and its teaching hospital, many Norwich parents have the means, and the driven personalities to be at the vanguard of the drone parenting movement. And yet the town has largely opted out of the athletic (and academic) arms races being waged elsewhere. Its residents seem to have absorbed a saying passed down through the generations by farmers in the area: “Never going to make biscuits out of them kittens.” They don’t try to mold their offspring into something they’re not. As a result, the town has succeeded in preparing its athletes not just for professional achievement, but also for joy in their post-sports lives. It is telling that the “unofficial mayor” of the town is not a coach or one of its celebrated athletes. She is Beth Reynolds, the children’s librarian at Norwich Public Library who acts as a guide to new worlds with reading recommendations tailored to each youngster’s personality and whimsies. Yet as extraordinary as the town seems, the ingredients for its success can be planted and cultivated anywhere.

Excerpt from NORWICH by Karen Crouse. Copyright © 2018 by Karen Crouse. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

This article was originally published on January 22, 2018.

This segment aired on January 22, 2018.



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