Lessons from Norwich, Vermont: By not overemphasizing sports, one small town nurtures the unlikeliest of Olympic pipelines

By Karen Crouse

While in San Jose recently on a work assignment, I made a nostalgic side trip to a local age-group swim meet for beginners and others climbing the initial rungs of the competitive ladder. The dingy indoor pool brought back a flood of memories of a childhood happily spent pickled in chlorine at this and other swimming facilities in and around the Bay Area. But one sight was wholly unfamiliar to me.

Around me in the bleachers sat mothers who recorded their 10- or 11-year-old’s races on their tablets or smartphones and then thrust the devices in front of their dripping wet children to review before they had a chance to remove their caps or slip on their sweats. A few stood next to their children and offered stroke critiques during the replay.  

The children’s weary expressions made plain that the video idea had not been their own. The scene reminded me how much youth sports have changed in my lifetime. When I was at the same age and stage, my parents greeted me after my races with a wide smile and a warm offer of a snack. They left any instruction to my coaches, which rendered them “normal” then, but apparently would make them outliers today.

An age-group coach who grew up in the Bay Area in my era told me that the days of kids experiencing burnout because they were swimming too many miles in practice at too young an age are largely a thing of the past. Now, he said, kids are experiencing burnout because they are facing too much pressure at too young an age from parents whose high expectations and hands-on engagement turn the sport into more of a duty than a delight.  

Thank goodness a place exists where the childhood I enjoyed is still the norm. It is a town so special I wrote a book about it: “Norwich, One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence” (Simon & Schuster, published in January 2018).

Norwich, located across the Connecticut River from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, has roughly 3,000 residents, 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 who have won three medals. The town has become the unlikeliest of Olympic pipelines, but that is only part of what makes it so noteworthy.

Unlike in surrounding towns, where 8-year-old soccer players are required to sign contracts stipulating that the game takes priority if they have a scheduling conflict on a game day, few limits or boundaries are placed on the children of Norwich. They aren’t cut from teams, they don’t specialize in a single sport at a young age, and they even root for their rivals. They are encouraged to enjoy themselves by parents who are supportive but not suffocating.

For the kids of Norwich, making it to the Olympics is seen not as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career but as a cool stop on the way to achieving other, longer-lasting dreams. The town’s Olympians include Felix McGrath, a four-sport athlete through high school who competed in alpine skiing at the 1988 Winter Olympics. And Jeff Hastings, whose fourth place in ski jumping at the 1984 Sarajevo Games is the highest-ever Olympic finish by a U.S.-born athlete in the sport.

Then there is Andrew Wheating, who took up track as a senior in high school and qualified for his first Olympic team less than three years later. His parents didn’t know enough about track to meddle. During his senior year, Wheating’s mother did an internet search on how to enter the 2005 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships Northeast Regional in New York, a national high school competition she had heard people mention. It sounded like kind of a big deal. Wheating entered the event and placed a respectable 18th.

At the same age that Wheating discovered running, other athletes trained to achieve great early success are often abandoning their sport because of injuries and/or burnout. Do parents really want their children to end up like the Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won an Olympic gold medal in the team event as a 15-year-old in 2014 but won’t be competing in the upcoming Pyeongchang Games because she is retired and, she said, battling anorexia?

“When you are skating that intensely from such a young age, of course these girls are going to get burned out,” said U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner.

The Pyeongchang Games will be the 11th Olympics that I’ve covered, and in that time I’ve observed scores of aimless athletes whose paths are paved in Olympic gold but who seem as lost as if they were in a gilded maze. They continue to compete long after they have lost their passion for their sport because they don’t have an identity outside of athletics and/or don’t have the education or the drive to do anything else. Hannah Kearney, Norwich’s most successful Olympian with two medals (including a gold), retired in 2015 at the top of her sport.

At 28, she had grown antsy watching her non-skiing friends secure the second or third jobs of their careers while she was contemplating her major. Kearney had won a gold medal and it had not set her up for life financially. She had faith that all the qualities that helped her succeed as an athlete would also serve her well in whatever career she chose to pursue.

“If you continue doing something you’ve done for such a long time, you can’t really grow in other ways,” Kearney told me. “And the only way I’ll be able to do that is free up all this time I’ve been putting into skiing and put that time into growing as a person.”

Julia Krass, a slopestyle skier who became the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2014, was born in Connecticut. Her parents made the move to the Upper Valley shortly after the elder of Krass’s two brothers played on a recreational league team in Wilton, Connecticut, as a kindergartener. During one of his games, a teammate crumpled to the ground after a collision. To the Krasses’ horror, the boy’s mother screamed at him to get up. Krass’s mother was so unnerved by the incident that she stopped attending the games.

After awhile, the Krasses began plotting their departure to avoid becoming infected by the same rabid parenting strain. “The madness had to stop,” Krass’s father, Peter, said. They left Connecticut when Julia was a toddler. During their first winter in New Hampshire, Krass’s  mother, Diana, taught her to ski at Whaleback Mountain in nearby Enfield. After the Sochi Olympics, Krass’s parents moved to Norwich.

I met Krass on the soccer pitch in the fall of 2014. She was a senior captain of the Hanover High girls soccer team, which was practicing on its home field ahead of its first playoff game. By the end of high school, Krass was spending her winters in Park City, Utah, where the snow was more consistent -- and usually more plentiful -- and where she had access to the top-notch facilities built for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Another skier I met, Brook Leigh, also spends his winters in Utah but continues to attend regular school. A straight-A student, Leigh, a moguls specialist from Norwich, hopscotches between schools in Hanover and Park City.

The transfer from one high school to another and back requires an avalanche of paperwork. Leigh’s parents put him in charge of the details. He has to coordinate classes with his teachers at both schools, a responsibility that has fostered his sense of independence. Whenever he returns to Park City, he faces a period of adjustment in the classroom and on the slopes — especially on the slopes, where he joins year-round freestyle skiers whose young lives revolve around the sport.

They do more advanced tricks, and sometimes Leigh feels as if it takes all winter to catch up. He doesn’t worry that he is falling behind, though, because he has seen enough kids burn out as teenagers to appreciate the value of maintaining a more balanced life. He cannot imagine becoming a full-time resident of Park City, with a population more than twice Norwich’s. The larger populace makes Leigh feel penned in. “I like being in the wilderness,” he said.

The day I interviewed him, we sat in the living room of his family’s Norwich home. His mother was around but she was busy with chores in other rooms and joined the conversation only when summoned by Leigh to provide a fact or flesh out a story. I asked Leigh what he thinks he has gained by having to coordinate classes with his teachers at both schools instead of letting his parents tend to the details. He said he is much better at communicating with adults than most of his peers (an observation I would say is absolutely true).

Leigh aspires to one day compete in the Olympics. But I left his house after the interview feeling pretty confident that he will be fine no matter what his future in his sport holds. I wish I felt the same way about the kids sullenly watching their mothers’ recordings of their races. Watching them, all I could think was that they looked as if they could use a hug.

Karen Crouse is a sports reporter at The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she earned a varsity letter in swimming. She started her newspaper career at the Savannah News-Press, where she was the first woman to grace the sports department, and worked at seven other dailies before being hired by the New York Times in 2005. Her first book, on a small Vermont town's secret to raising Olympians who are happy, healthy and productive people and performers, was published by Simon & Schuster in January 2018. Books can be purchased here.