It does not hurt that Norwich has poor cellular service, making its residents less tethered to their tablets and smartphones than many other Americans. Or that many of the parents work near their homes in jobs that allow them to spend time with their kids — even leaving work early once a week to ski together.
Not every community is going to be able to replicate those factors. But other towns can adopt the Norwich Way if parents commit to following a few simple principles.
Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Treat Your Neighbor’s Child as Your Own
In Norwich, parents are invested in everybody’s children, not just their own. They keep alive the communitarian spirit that is rooted in the town’s agrarian past by fostering an environment in which the success of one child is celebrated as a victory for everyone.
It begins with the nearby Ford Sayre ski school, started by a graduate of nearby Dartmouth College with the aim of making ski opportunities available to every child, not just the advanced racers or natural athletes. The program enlists parent volunteers as teachers who work with kids other than their own. It continues with the more affluent townspeople helping those who are less well-off by paying recreation league fees or donating equipment.
Norwich’s former Olympic athletes do their part, volunteering as instructors and playing central roles in the Olympic send-offs of the youngsters they’ve helped inspire.
It’s been this way for decades. Tim Tetreault, now 47, was a promising Nordic combined athlete when he arrived in college, unsure whether he should continue competing or concentrate on his studies. As he was weighing his options, he received an unexpected postcard from one of his Norwich neighbors, the ski jumping Olympian Mike Holland, who was competing in Europe. Holland wrote a few sentences of encouragement, and his kind act had a profound impact on Tetreault.
Inspired by Holland’s words, Tetreault continued in his sport and he went on to grace three United States Olympic teams.
The town’s generosity of spirit was summed up by the two-time Olympic runner Andrew Wheating, who told me, “In Norwich, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of all of us.”
Frame Sports as Fun
The town’s collective philosophy is that youth sports exist to develop a lasting love for physical activity and the outdoors, life skills and friendships that last forever. Norwich operates a no-cut recreational league, which the two-time Olympic medalist Hannah Kearney said enabled her to develop some of her most enduring friendships, with girls who weren’t natural athletes. Kearney, who won a gold medal in 2010, retired in 2015, after winning the season-long world championship in the moguls.
Why wouldn’t she continue competing for three more years, long enough to participate in another Olympics? It was tempting, Kearney said, but she felt it was time for her to expand her comfort zone beyond the place where she felt the most capable and the most confident: on skis.
“But you have to have faith that there will be some other way to get that feeling in your life,” Kearney told me, adding, “If you continue doing something you’ve done for such a long time, you can’t really grow in other ways.” And where Kearney came from, growing as a person is as important as anything one accomplishes as a performer.
In Norwich, it’s not that parents don’t want their children to be successful. They definitely do. It’s just that they are encouraging them to cultivate skills that will serve them in the long run. Parents strive to develop the next Jim Holland, a two-time Olympic ski jumper who took the skills he honed in his sport — discipline, determination, perseverance and goal setting — and applied them to starting a successful business, backcountry.com, a Utah-based online retailer that specializes in outdoor clothing and equipment.
Let Kids Own Their Activities
As a teenager, the alpine skier Felix McGrath held a variety of jobs because his parents thought the experience would be priceless, and McGrath had to admit they were right. He appreciated his skiing all the more when he was using his hard-earned money to help cover the costs. And the jobs paid added dividends.
“Finding — and keeping — those jobs forced me to be independent and responsible and accountable,” he said.
Brook Leigh, an up-and-coming teenage moguls skier, also noted the benefits of responsibility. He divides his time between Norwich and Park City, Utah, where he makes judicious use of the state-of-the-art facilities built for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Leigh attends school in Hanover, N.H., and Park City, and his mother and father have entrusted him with coordinating his class schedule with teachers at both schools so that he can stay on track to graduate with his class. Being given such responsibility has increased Leigh’s self-confidence, his feelings of competence and his sense of autonomy. He told me he has noticed that he is better able to converse with adults, which he ascribes to having to effectively communicate his needs to teachers at both his schools.
In Norwich, the parents of the ski jumpers and snowboarders encourage their children to take risks, engage in horseplay and settle among themselves the conflicts that inevitably arise. When in doubt, they err on the side of giving their children freedom. They try not to control their children’s choices to serve their own egos or anxieties. They intuitively sense what a 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies concluded: that overprotective or helicopter parents thwart a child’s basic psychological need for autonomy and competence, resulting in an uptick in depression and lower life-satisfaction levels.
After the Pyeongchang Olympics, some athletes will return home elated with their performance while others will no doubt feel deflated. But if they follow the example of the Norwich athletes, all the participants, no matter their finish, will look back on their Olympic experience for what it is: Just one step on the path to a successful life.