Lessons on Olympic spirit from a small New England town
How Norwich, Vermont, might hold the key to changing a win-or-else culture.
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My love of sports — and the direction of my life — can be traced to the 1972 Summer Olympics, where Mark Spitz’s record performance in the pool turned 9-year-old me on to a swimming career that carried me through college. The upcoming Pyeongchang Games in South Korea will be the 11th Olympics that I have covered as a reporter, and I am finding it ever more awkward writing stirring stories about Olympians who win medals only to later fail tests for performance-enhancing drugs or end up aimless or unhappy.
The Olympics I loved as a child starred athletes motivated by the sheer pleasure of testing themselves against the very best, who then returned and integrated themselves into their communities. That memory belonged to a bygone era, or so I thought until I found Norwich, just 130 miles from Boston. This Vermont town of 3,000 people has produced 11 Olympians, who have not only taken home three medals but gone on to thrive as adults.
Even more remarkable, Norwich has sent its kids to the Olympics while largely rejecting the hypercompetitive joy-wringing culture of today’s tiger moms and eagle dads. In Norwich, kids aren’t cut from teams. They don’t specialize in a single sport, and they even root for their rivals. Parents encourage their kids simply to enjoy themselves, because they recognize that more than any trophy or record, the life skills sports develop and sharpen are the real payoff.
I grew up in a place like Norwich: Santa Clara, California, before all the orchards had been razed to accommodate the technology boom. In 1976, as part of an eighth-grade English project to make a “magazine,” I interviewed the star of my club swim team, Mike Bruner, the Michael Phelps of his day. The US Olympic trials were held shortly thereafter, and my father took me to watch. I made copies of my project, with the interview, to give to Bruner and his coach, Bill Rose.
Bruner had gotten off to a rocky start, failing to make the US team in one of his best events, and qualifying only for the relay in another. I gave the copies of the magazine to Rose, who actually 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 made him re-read his own words aloud, essentially delivering his own pep talk. That night, Bruner made the US Olympic team in the 200-meter butterfly. After the race, a local reporter asked him how he’d turned around his fortunes. And he said a girl on his team had interviewed him for a school project and his coach made him read the finished product and it had put him in a positive frame of mind.
Bruner’s words planted the seed that blossomed into my life’s work. This interconnectedness — where no one is too important or too busy to take time to help someone out, and where the contributions of others to one’s success are enthusiastically acknowledged — largely is gone from where I grew up. The technology boom, led mostly by newcomers intent on inventing the future and wherever possible erasing the past, has fundamentally changed the area, producing a culture focused on new ideas and quick turnarounds and achievements and money.
Today Santa Clara is the epicenter of the me-first, job-centered lifestyle. Gone along with the fruit orchards is the communitarian spirit that used to exist. But it is alive and well in Norwich, where, for instance, the Olympic ski jumpers volunteer to work with beginners and high schoolers.
Norwich is overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class, but the townspeople’s social safety net can also exist in much different communities. Last year I read about a neighborhood in Chicago, considered one of its most violent, where a group of parents is effecting positive change: They take shifts sitting on the corner of a main thoroughfare — the better to observe the actions of passersby — cook for neighborhood kids, and facilitate games and other activities. Where everyone is a mom or dad with an interest in children’s well-being, everyone feels less isolated, and everyone has a stake in the community.
I never came close to making the Olympics; I didn’t even earn a college scholarship, walking on to the swim team at the University of Southern California. In today’s results-oriented culture, plenty of people would consider my 12-year swim career a monumental waste of time — especially in the Olympic movement, where second place is framed as the first loser. The people of Norwich know how wrongheaded that is, because they have not lost sight of sport’s intrinsic benefits: developing a lasting love for physical activity; making lifelong friends; honing life skills like self-discipline, persistence, resilience, and so much more.
I recently spoke to an age-group swim coach in the Bay Area. He told me kids used to leave the sport from burnout caused by years of high-mileage workouts. Now, the burnout is caused by parental pressure. If there is one lesson Norwich can teach us, it is this: Kids prosper when they are driven by their own passions and not by their starry-eyed parents.
A Norwich athlete isn’t on the US team in Pyeongchang. But I’ll be looking for competitors who know there’s more to life than an Olympic medal, like the Nigerian bobsledders who are the first athletes to represent that country in a Winter Olympics. I just hope I find others, as well.