The Olympics I loved as a kid featured athletes motivated by the sheer thrill of competing against the best, who then came back and integrated into their communities. This memory belonged to a bygone era, at least I thought it would until I found Norwich, just 130 miles from Boston. This Vermont town of 3,000 produced 11 Olympians, who not only won three medals, but continued to thrive into adulthood.
Even more remarkable, Norwich sent their kids to the Olympics while largely rejecting the hypercompetitive and uplifting culture of today’s tiger moms and eagle dads. In Norwich, children are not excluded from teams. They don’t specialize in just one sport, and they even support their rivals. Parents encourage their children to just have fun, as they recognize that more than any trophy or record, the life skills that sports develop and hone are the real reward.
I grew up in a place like Norwich: Santa Clara, California, before all the orchards were razed to accommodate the tech boom. In 1976, as part of an eighth grade English project to make a “magazine,” I interviewed the star of my club’s swim team, Mike Bruner, the Michael Phelps of his day. The US Olympic Trials were held shortly after, and my dad took me to watch them. I made copies of my project, along with the interview, to give to Bruner and his coach, Bill Rose.
Bruner had a rough start, failing to make the USA side in one of their best events and only qualifying for the relay in another. I gave the copies of the magazine to Rose, who took the time to read my Q&A. He told me it was fantastic and that he was going to make sure Bruner saw it right away.
He found Bruner and had him reread his own words aloud, essentially delivering his own pep talk. That night, Bruner was part of the US Olympic team in the 200-meter butterfly. After the race, a local reporter asked him how he had turned his fortune. And he said that a girl on his team had interviewed him for a school project and her coach made him read the finished product and that put him in a positive frame of mind.
Bruner’s words planted the seed that blossomed in my life’s work. This interconnection – where no one is too important or too busy to take the time to help someone, and where the contributions of others to their success are enthusiastically acknowledged – has largely disappeared from where I grew up. . The tech boom, driven primarily by newcomers determined to invent the future and, wherever possible, erase the past, has fundamentally changed the field, producing a culture focused on new ideas, rapid rotations, accomplishments. and money.
Today, Santa Clara is the epicenter of a work-centered lifestyle and me first. With the orchards, there is the community spirit that once existed. But it’s alive and well in Norwich, where, for example, Olympic ski jumpers volunteer to work with beginners and high schoolers.
Norwich is predominantly white and predominantly middle class, but the social safety net of city dwellers can exist in very different communities as well. Last year I read a story about a neighborhood in Chicago considered one of the most violent, where a group of parents are making a positive change: they take turns sitting on the corner of a main thoroughfare – to better observe the actions of passers-by – cook for the neighborhood children and lead games and other activities. Where everyone is a child-minded mom or dad, everyone feels less isolated and everyone has a stake in the community.
I have never failed to participate in the Olympics; I didn’t even get a college scholarship, I joined the University of Southern California swim team. In today’s results-driven culture, many people would view my 12-year swimming career as a monumental waste of time – especially in the Olympic movement, where second place is seen as the first loser. The people of Norwich know how wrong this is, because they haven’t lost sight of the intrinsic benefits of sport: developing a lasting love for physical activity; make lifelong friends; hone life skills like self-discipline, persistence, resilience and more.
I recently spoke to an age group swim coach in the Bay Area. He told me that kids used to quit sports because of exhaustion from years of long-term training. However, burnout is caused by parental pressure. If there’s one lesson Norwich can teach us, it’s this: Children thrive when they are motivated by their own passions, not their star-eyed parents.
An athlete from Norwich is not part of the US team in Pyeongchang. But I will be looking for competitors who know there is more to life than an Olympic medal, like the Nigerian bobsledders who are the first athletes to represent this country at the Winter Olympics. I just hope to find others too.
Karen Crouse is a sports reporter for the New York Times. His new book is “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence”. Send your comments to [email protected] Follow us on twitter @BostonGlobeMag.