Inspiration from the Winter Olympics, via Norwich, Vermont
From the Headmaster's Desk, February 19, 2018
I hope you all enjoyed a restful and restorative half term. Perhaps, like me, you enjoyed watching some of the Winter Olympics.
I was inspired by a couple of 17-year-old Americans, the young man who won the first gold for the USA in the slopestyle, and then the charming 17-year-old young woman, who won the half pipe after tweeting about being ‘hangry’. She was eating chocolate ice cream during her BBC interview after winning gold. It is so impressive to see talented teenagers achieve such great things, yet remain so authentic and down-to-earth.
And of course Team GB was inspiring over the weekend, with Lizzy Yarnold becoming the first skeleton athlete to win successive golds, defending her title from 2014. Team GB is just one medal away from a record haul in this Olympics.
Sadly in sport there is always disappointment as well, and watching Elise Christie crash in the final of the 500m and then again in the semi-final of the 1,000m was heart-breaking. The triple world champion sadly seems to be suffering from more bad luck in this Olympics.
Still the most interesting story for me from this winter games is a back story, about a tiny town in the small American state of Vermont. The town of Norwich has only 3,000 people in its population, but has produced 11 Olympians, including sending someone on almost every US Winter Olympics team since 1984. Recently a researcher wrote a book on the town, trying to discover its secret to happiness and excellence.
The author noted that Norwich, which is hilly, wooded and includes a couple of mountains, has poor mobile phone reception. Residents spend less time on tablets or smartphones than other Americans, and more time on the slopes at the local ski resorts. That might be one early advantage in their pursuit of Olympic glory.
But other points were more telling. The first is that parents invest in everyone’s children, not just their own. The warm community of the small town is a fostering environment where the success of one child is celebrated as a victory for everyone. Children in Norwich are often seen rooting for their rivals. One two-time Olympian from the town said the town’s spirit can be summed up as ‘not the survival of the fittest, but survival of all of us’. There is a genuine collective approach that pervades the ethos of Norwich.
The nearby ski school makes opportunities available to everyone, not just the wealthy, advanced racers or top athletes. The ski school has many volunteers and plenty of donated equipment, giving the less well-off the chance to learn to ski and race in the local leagues.
In Norwich, participation is encouraged and expected. Youth sports are given a priority, and are recognised as giving its young people a lasting love of both physical activity and the outdoors. Norwich also recognises that sport teaches life skills and friendships that last forever. The local ski school has a ‘no-cut’ recreational league, which encourages all participants to keep racing, regardless of their skill level.
Now, it’s not that parents in Norwich don’t want their children to be successful. Obviously they do, but they recognise that, through encouraging outdoor activity and sport, they can help cultivate skills that will serve their children well in the long run. Another two-time Olympic ski jumper from the town says that sport taught him four things: discipline, determination, perseverance and goal setting. He now runs a large and successful online outdoor gear company that he started with a loan of $2K from a local friend; the company now employs 1200 people.
Norwich is a modest town, and many of the young people hold part-time jobs as well. Another successful skier from the town noted that he appreciated the opportunity to race on skis all the more once he was using his own hard-earned money to cover the costs. Managing his own finances alongside school, work and racing taught him to be independent and accountable.
What lessons can we learn from this small town? Well, clearly the collective approach, based on a sense of community, is essential. I like to think that this school is also a place where all of us look after each other, encouraging one another at every step. I also appreciate how Norwich encourages everyone to get involved and participate, even if it is just to enjoy some physical activity and the outdoors.
Learning life lessons through outdoor activity, such as independence, determination and accountability, are also important. Although I might add these can be learnt through drama, music, art, CCF, public speaking, D of E or many of the activities offered at Blue Coat.
So a warm welcome back to all of you. It was quiet here at Holme Park over the holidays, and it is lovely to see this community coming back together today. I wish you all an inspiring and productive second half of term, and I hope that you will embody some of the best of the Olympic spirit here in the next few weeks, and take advantage of all that is on offer.