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How one small Vermont town exports Winter Olympics competitors

The fastest way to the top was downhill.

Kids from Norwich, a tiny town in Vermont, routinely zipped down the slopes into spots on the U.S. Winter Olympic team across the past three decades.

The town of 3,000 sent its athletes to eight of the nine winter games from 1984-2014 — with two more qualifying for the Summer Olympics.

That’s 11 Olympians and three Olympic medals for the New England town that boasts about its village green. To put that in perspective: 73 countries have yet to win a single medal.

It’s not as if the children are fed some special diet and bred in laboratories.

In “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence,” sports journalist and onetime elite swimmer Karen Crouse charts how the town did it.

Though cynics might sneer, it comes down to supporting but not pushing the kids. Sure, they practice a lot. But the key was participating — not winning.

The weak-armed pitcher who bounces his pitches gets his innings, just like the pitcher who hit his growth spurt in elementary school and fires 70 mph fastballs. No one is cut from a recreation team.

"Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town's Secret to Happiness and Excellence" by Karen Crouse.

“Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence” by Karen Crouse.

(Karen Crouse/Karen Crouse)

People in town help support athletes who cannot afford equipment, and older kids help younger ones.

Norwich, four hours north of New York City, looks like a postcard for a quaint New England village. Norwich’s most famous non-Olympic resident remains Bob Keeshan, TV’s Captain Kangaroo.

So, yes, the town is very wholesome and has become more expensive over the years. Many families had been there for generations, and old-timers complain the local farms are disappearing.

And many local residents are associated with nearby Ivy League school Dartmouth University.

Crouse notes that though there are working class and some poorer residents, Norwich’s median income is $ 89,000. But why so many top athletes come out of there comes down to an attitude.

“The children of Norwich still have the physical space and parental distance to explore, and discover, their place in the world,” Crouse writes.

“Its adults, generally speaking, have traded the acquisitive treadmill for daily nature walks and other grounding experiences. The residents look out for one another, and their connectivity provides a social safety net that no amount of money can buy.”

Karen Crouse

Karen Crouse

(Caitlin O’Hara/Caitlin O’Hara)

The town hero is the children’s librarian, who ensures the kids all read. Everyone still gathers at the general store. And there are wonderful send-offs with water from that general store when athletes head to the Olympics.

Sports are an integral part of Norwich, but they’re not practiced in the cutthroat way common in other places. As the athletes competed in the Olympics, Norwich cheered them all equally — medalists or not.

The Holland family turned out three champion skiers. Mike Holland went to the Olympics in 1984 and 1988. He appeared to fly on skis.

Retired from ski jumping, Holland works in finance but returns to his elementary school every year to talk with students and inspire them to try new adventures.

He shows them how ski jumps are done, using a homemade contraption that allows the kids to fly off into foam mats.

Both of his younger brothers, Joe and Jim, followed him into the sport. What stands out here is that his parents, initially less than thrilled about the sport, still let Mike give it a shot.

“It was something I often saw in Norwich — parents nurturing their children’s enthusiasms no matter how culturally uncool, unfamiliar or downright dangerous,” Crouse writes.

For freestyle moguls skier Hannah Kearney, who took home gold at the 2010 games and bronze at the 2014 Winter Olympics, things came naturally.

For freestyle moguls skier Hannah Kearney, who took home gold at the 2010 games and bronze at the 2014 Winter Olympics, things came naturally.

(Kirk Paulson/Kirk Paulson )

Even those who have done nothing more athletic with snow than shovel it are familiar with ski jumping. For years, “Wide World of Sports” used it to illustrate “the agony of defeat” as Yugoslavian Vinko Bogataj wiped out in the opening credits.

The sport called to Holland, who suffered his share of wipeouts, concussions and broken bones. He also won five national titles.

He didn’t start out as the poster boy for grace. Early on, Holland’s unusual form had people calling him “the flying sack of potatoes.”

Yet Holland and his pals from Norwich and his brothers trained together, cheered one another on and trained with Dartmouth jumpers.

The university skiers taught him to visualize what he wanted to do until it felt natural.

For freestyle moguls skier Hannah Kearney, who took home gold at the 2010 games and bronze at the 2014 Winter Olympics, things came naturally.

A true daughter of Norwich, her mom is the youth sports director of the town recreation department and enforces the rules on inclusiveness.

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In her first Olympics, Kearney finished 22nd, which meant that she couldn’t compete for a medal. She was crushed. When she returned home, everyone was thrilled that she had made it so far.

(Garth Hager/Garth Hager )

Though Kearney’s parents were intent on rearing her to be relaxed about sports and enjoy the competition, from a young age she put the pressure on herself.

Kearney’s agility was also evident early. At 5 months old she could balance on her mom’s hand. She only became more agile once she started skiing at 2.

The local ski school, Ford K. Sayre, where Norwich’s Olympians took to the slopes for the first time, fits in perfectly with the town’s philosophy.

Skiing was considered family time and though her mom was enforcing egalitarian rules, on the slopes or in the soccer pitch, Kearney was fiercely competitive.

It wasn’t just against others; she was constantly challenging herself. Kearney’s gym teacher stopped her from doing more sit-ups for the President’s Council on Fitness test.

People often told her to relax.

“As with all other elite athletes, Hannah risked sacrificing the qualities that made her human in pursuit of the goal of performing like a machine,” Crouse writes.

Julia Krass takes a jump during the women's freestyle skiing slopestyle qualifying at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

Julia Krass takes a jump during the women’s freestyle skiing slopestyle qualifying at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

(Sergei Grits/AP)

As driven and excellent as she was, Kearney only became the moguls ski champ with help from neighbors. Her parents could not afford to send her to all of the competitions.

Help came from the father of an acquaintance of Kearney’s mom. A millionaire made her a terrific offer — he would finance her, but she had to show him her grades every semester and keep a ledger of how she spent the money.

In her first Olympics, Kearney finished 22nd, which meant that she couldn’t compete for a medal. She was crushed. When she returned home, everyone was thrilled that she had made it so far.

Holland and Kearney were Norwich-born and bred, but Julia Krass came there later.

Originally the Krass family was in Wilton, Conn., but after her mom witnessed a parent’s insane competitiveness at a soccer game — for 5-year-olds — they moved to Hanover, N.H.

They later moved to Norwich because of the town’s attitude.

Krass was the youngest member of the USA team in Sochi and after meeting President Obama, had to return to high school. She is now at Dartmouth.

Krass went against her ski coaches’ wishes and joined her high school soccer team as a midfielder. She liked this position because it requires her to share the ball.

And that pretty much encapsulates the spirit the town fosters. Adults recognize sports don’t need to be blood sports, and they raise their kids to be independent.

“The Norwich way gives kids ample space to discover their passions and pursue them for their own reasons and at their own pace,” Crouse writes.

And she makes the case that if towns could win medals for doing the right thing, Norwich would take gold.

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