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Book Review: Norwich’s Resources Nurture Olympians

  • Hannah Kearney speaks to those who gathered to mark her return from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Monday, February 24, 2014. Kearney, who earned a bronze medal in the mogul competition, reiterated that this was her last Olympics and she looks forward to cheering on the next generation of Olympians from her home town. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • U.S. Olympic runner Andy Wheating of Norwich, Vt., is joined by Olympic ski jumper Jeff Hastings, with microphone, and well-wishers, from left, Axel Larson, Colby Clarkson, John Wallis and Luke Lindberg during a send-off on July 23, 2008, at Upper Valley Events Center. Wheating will run the 800 meters in Beijing. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, January 13, 2018

Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence

By Karen Crouse; Simon & Schuster;
288 pages; $26

Toward the end of Karen Crouse’s tale of breathless admiration, Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence, she alludes to a conflict in the town over a proposed zoning amendment.

She calls the proposed amendment “the subject of intense debate” before returning to her celebration of a community that has figured out the secret sauce for producing world class athletes who are also good, down-to-earth people.

And produce world-class athletes, it has.

Norwich has nurtured 11 Olympians, three of whom have brought home medals, including freestyle skier Hannah Kearney who won gold in Vancouver after dominating women’s moguls in 2010.

Not too shabby for a town of around 3,400 people.

As Kearney tells it, supposedly one out of every 322 Norwich residents is an Olympian. There must be something in the well water, goes the joke in town.

What’s more remarkable than the high number of Olympians in Norwich is that these athletes, fierce competitors though they are, are also kind, grounded, well-adjusted human beings who give back to the community that nurtured them. They live full, well-rounded lives and often return to Norwich to start businesses, raise families and coach the sports that nourished their own development so deeply. In an era known for its depraved excess in elite and professional sports, the normalcy of these athletes is part of what makes them so exceptional.

Middle-distance runner Andrew Wheating, for example, didn’t even start running until his senior year of high school, only three years before representing the U.S. in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. More to the point, Wheating volunteered for three years as a Big Brother to a middle school boy who had no clue that the guy he was playing video games with was by then a two-time Olympian until he saw him on television one day.

And then there’s snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who technically isn’t one of Norwich’s 11 Olympians, but would have been if not for a crash leading up to the 2010 Olympics that left him with a near-fatal traumatic brain injury that ended his career. In his battle to recover, Pearce started the Love Your Brain Foundation with his brother Adam, educating people around the country about traumatic brain injury and offering support to the victims and families who are struggling with it.

Ski jumpers Mike and Joe Holland — two of three Holland Olympians — not only teach kids as young as 5 to soar on skis; they can also be found making and packing the snow, setting the tracks and raking the landing area — whatever it takes to help as many kids as possible gain mastery over fear.

And Hannah Kearney, who is so beloved in Norwich that the town, including 300 schoolchildren, turned out not only to send her off and welcome her home from her brilliant performance in 2010; they were also there to comfort her in defeat following a disappointing 2006 performance in Turin.

The humanity of these athletes — their kindness, their generosity, their lack of prima donna-ness — comes through so powerfully in Crouse’s telling that you can’t help but root for them, not only as athletes, but in everything they undertake.

It’s easy to see why Crouse, a veteran New York Times sportswriter, after covering nearly a dozen Olympic games, found the Norwich athletes and the community that nurtured them to be such elixir. She describes how Norwich restored her faith in Olympic sports as she “ ... muddled through the mess that was the Sochi Olympics, with its displaced citizenry, disappearing dogs, dilapidated accommodations, and distressing price tag . . .” (Suffice it to say, if a public event requires the rounding up and killing of stray dogs, it’s probably lost some of its magic.)

And indeed, it’s hard not to share in these athletes’ joy and exhilaration — the same joy and exhilaration that makes so many people fall in love with games and sports in the first place. Through Crouse’s lucid prose, their delight leaps off the page, like going airborne at a sledding hill on the unexpected snow day. Norwich is worth reading for these moments. The result is winning, the sentiment contagious.

But Crouse’s book isn’t really about the athletes. It’s about the town.

It’s about how this “down-to-earth farming community” has nurtured its youth and how other communities and parents, no matter where they live, can learn from its example.

It’s a love letter to a place where nobody is left out due to lack of talent or ability to pay; where parents are supportive without being meddlesome; where adults teach kids to go for their dreams without the application of toxic pressure; where staff at the public library and elementary school make every child feel known; and where parents “praise efforts, not results, and send a loud and clear message that community trumps competition by embracing the success of children other than their own.”

It’s in this capacity — in her argument that “the Norwich way” can serve as a guide for “overwhelmed parents everywhere” and that “the seeds for its success can be planted and cultivated anywhere” — that Crouse falters, as the copious amount of mortar she needs to hold this conceit together makes the book more about the mortar than the bricks.

Because while Crouse aptly places Norwich as so down-to-earth that it has mud on its boots in the context of elite and professional sports, and in comparison to its tony Ivy League neighbor, Hanover, she never places it within the more important and relevant context: the day-to-day reality of most Americans — parents who are raising their children within the very real constraints of an ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor.

From the starter pistol, Crouse ties herself up like a pretzel to make Norwich seem like your average town. There are mobile homes there, she gushes on page 2.

And while she acknowledges that the town is “relatively affluent” and “overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class,” and that home prices and property taxes are on the rise, Crouse’s careful framing of Norwich as just your average place where “residents have simply made judicious use of resources on offer,” makes it seem as though she’s girding her premise that the town’s success can be replicated anywhere by downplaying the role that a prosperous ZIP code might have had in these athletes’, or anyone’s, successes.

Because, actually, Norwich is rich. Really rich. It is the richest town in Vermont, a state where, according to the Public Assets Institute, the income gap is growing, affordable housing is decreasing, and poverty is on the rise — all while the state’s top 5 percent of earners enjoyed a whopping 42 percent increase in income from 2006 to 2016. In Norwich, the median home price is more than twice the Windsor County median and while Crouse cites median household income at $89,000 (using the website city-data.com as her source), the Vermont Department of Taxes puts the number much higher based on 2015 tax returns. At $139,000, Norwich’s median household income is more than double that of Hartford, its neighbor immediately to the south.

When neighboring Hartford makes the news it’s often for the reason that other Vermont towns like it — Rutland, Brattleboro, Barre — make the news: for the devastating opioid crisis that’s destroying the lives of so many people who live here. Norwich’s athletes may return home to build lives in the town that nurtured and raised them, but for many of Vermont’s young people, the only real shot at a productive life is to leave, something people who need jobs have been doing in droves to the great consternation of state officials.

When Crouse quotes Jim Kenyon saying that Norwich is “Disney World with maple trees,” Crouse either ignores or flat out misses the point: for most Vermonters, most Americans and most people who live on planet Earth, Norwich and its wealth are no more within reach than Cinderella’s castle, no matter how carefully the town tends its muddy boot image, and no matter how assiduously Crouse heralds it.

Of course, it would be a mistake to suggest that wealth can buy community or the kind of love, attention, freedom and nurturing that has been so pivotal to Norwich’s athletes. But wealth does buy opportunity. And flexibility. It buys lift passes and $800,000 homes with the coveted “room to roam” Crouse extols. It buys teachers and educational resources for kids who need them, so Marion Cross School can send everyone skiing at noon on Wednesdays during the winter without fear of failing to meet its curricular mandates. Wealth can’t buy a trip to the Olympics, at least not yet as far as I know, but it does buy the kinds of opportunities that lead to the “excellence” Crouse celebrates.

What wealth doesn’t buy is virtue. And it shouldn’t buy admiration either. In her exceptional verbal gymnastics to present Norwich as the kind of place where one person’s success is everyone’s success, where nobody is left out due to lack of talent or ability to pay, Crouse fails to acknowledge a darker and more complex identity to this Disney World with maple trees.

Because while Norwich has figured out some things about nurturing its own, it’s also a community that preserves its own character so carefully that it’s practically pickled. The intensely debated proposal for a zoning amendment would have created a high-density district with requirements for affordable housing, something Norwich residents have consistently and vocally rejected with a gusto that rivals its parades for Hannah Kearney. Never mind that the proposal’s affordable housing would be far more environmentally sound than selling off undeveloped lots to wealthy newcomers as middle class families flee the town’s high taxes; or that it would relieve pressure on other Upper Valley towns that disproportionately shoulder the responsibility for affordable housing; or that it would give kids from less fortunate Upper Valley families the kinds of opportunities that have given Norwich kids such an advantage in reaching their potential.

It’s this — Crouse’s besotted, one-sided narrative about Norwich and its “daisy chain of support” — that’s troubling, not the town’s privilege or preciousness per se. Because Norwich isn’t only about a town. It’s about a country with a massive and growing divide between the rich and the poor. A country where parents are driving themselves crazy to give their children whatever kind of leg up they can because they have to, because the playing field is so uneven, because they’re terrified of what might become of their kids if they don’t. A country where the wealthy control not only the resources, but a narrative, a narrative that Crouse has perpetuated.

If Norwich is truly to achieve something at this moment in history, it won’t be in sending another of its own to the Olympics. It will be in opening its gates, accepting the risk and seizing the opportunity that something like high-density affordable housing might present in order to give more kids a better shot at becoming “happy champions.” That would be something to celebrate — and it would make Norwich the kind of example that Karen Crouse so desperately wants it to be.

Norwich Bookstore will host Karen Crouse at Norwich Congregational Church on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The book goes on sale Jan. 23.

Brianne Goodspeed is a senior editor at Chelsea Green Publishing. She lives in Hartford.