Norwich’s secret, according to Crouse, is the opposite of today’s overheated youth-sports culture with its early specialization, travel teams and expensive individual coaching. The parents in Norwich allow their children to sample a variety of sports, emphasize participation more than achievement, and let their kids find their own way through trial and error.
Crouse is a reporter, not a sociologist. While she cites studies and books to support the idea that the “Norwich Way” is the best, she concentrates on the lives of Norwich’s athletes. She’s a good storyteller, and the stories make her point.
Ironically, the family that started Norwich’s incredible run of Olympic success was the opposite of the Norwich Way.
Albert O. Snite would have fit in with today’s helicopter sports parents. Snite drove his two daughters, Betsy and Sunny, to be champion skiers. He required the girls to train year round and removed them from school for long periods of time for national and international competitions.
In one painful episode, Crouse describes how the father reacted when Sunny, his younger daughter, offered to give up skiing to care for a horse that a relative had offered to the family. “ ‘You are going to ski,’ he told her, ‘come hell or high water.’ ”
In some ways, Snite’s obsessive drive paid off. Betsy made two Olympic teams and won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley in 1960. She also placed fourth in the giant slalom. Sunny, on the other hand, fell short of her father’s Olympic dreams after a skiing accident injured her back. Crouse makes it clear that Sunny used the injury to step away from the intense pressure of competitive skiing.
But skiing success came at a great cost to the Snite sisters. Betsy became a hard partier when she was away from her father on the European ski circuit. She died at age 45 after years of struggling with alcohol addiction. Sunny moved out West, rarely returned to Norwich and suffered through three abusive marriages. Her father died without ever meeting any of her husbands or either of her children.
The lesson was not lost on the inhabitants of Norwich. As Crouse writes, “The Snite sisters produced wonderful ski results, but no one in town wanted to raise their children to be like them.”
The other Norwich stories are happier. Two families — the Hastings and Hollands — produced five Olympians in ski jumping and Nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing). The adventures Crouse describes as the boys encourage and inspire one another to improve and help each other survive will make anyone jealous of this happy band of brothers.
When asked how he raised three Olympians out of five children, the Hollands’ father, Harry, observes, “Maybe some of the success of the boys was because we kept out of the way.”
“Norwich” offers other lessons: Felix McGrath did not specialize in any sport. He was a four-sport athlete in high school who made the 1988 Olympic team as an alpine skier. Andrew Wheating was a decidedly mediocre basketball and soccer player who discovered a passion for track during his junior year of high school and became an outstanding middle-distance runner.
Even the less-than-happy stories seem to reinforce the Norwich Way. Freestyle skiier Hannah Kearney failed badly in her first Olympics. She felt she had let the town down. But the people of Norwich did not turn their backs on her. They helped her financially and emotionally, and she bounced back to win gold in 2010 and bronze in 2014.
Kevin Pearce was a high-flying snowboarder who was ready to challenge Shaun White as America’s best on the flat board. A terrifying crash and head injury shortly before the 2010 Games left him in a coma for 10 days and forced him through a grueling rehabilitation. Although he has lingering effects from the crash, Pearce now speaks on behalf of people with traumatic brain injuries.
Crouse makes it clear that after the false start of the Snite sisters, the remaining Norwich Olympians have grown to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Some continue to contribute to the town’s sports programs and inspire younger athletes.
An obvious question hovers over the book: Can the Norwich Way be transferred to other communities?
Crouse, who rented a house in town for five months while researching the book, admits that Norwich has certain built-in advantages. Dartmouth College is in the next town. There are plenty of open areas for kids to explore and play. And the median household income in Norwich is $89,000, much higher than the national median of $56,000.
Still, Crouse suggests that these advantages are not as important as the attitudes of the people of Norwich. After all, nearby ski slopes are not much good unless you have an organization such as the local Ford Sayre ski program, which encourages all kids (and especially girls) to enjoy skiing as a fun, family outing.
Wheating, Crouse observes, would not have made the Beijing Games and become an NCAA champion if he had been cut from his youth-sports teams at a young age and told he was not good enough. The Hastings and Holland boys would not have flown as far as they did if their parents had discouraged their love of a dangerous sport and micromanaged their careers.
With her small but timely book, Crouse has given parents of young athletes a great gift — a glimpse at another way to raise accomplished and joyous competitors. Perhaps the more important question is: Will parents, dreaming of college scholarships and Olympic glory, bother to listen?
One Tiny Vermont Town's Secret to Happiness and Excellence
By Karen Crouse
Simon & Schuster. 276 pp. $26