What do Lebanon, NH (pop. 13,500), Prairie Du Chien, WI (pop. 6000), Newton, PA (pop. 2,300), Iron River, MI (pop. 3000), Winthrop, WA (pop. 406), and my home of Whitefish, MT (pop. 6500) have in common?
All sent a U.S. Olympian to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
In a quick scroll through the 28 U.S. Olympians whose last names start with an A or B, I found 3 who came from communities with less than 1000 people, 7 from communities with less than 10,000 people, and 5 from a community with between 10,000 and 50,000 people. In other words, the results of my decidedly unscientific poll showed 53% of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team came from a rural or small town. Since about 28% of us live in a place smaller than 50,000, these numbers make it pretty clear that our small towns and rural communities likely sent a disproportionate number of athletes to Sochi this year.
No surprise. Folks in rural and small town America have a long history of punching above their weight.
Our local Olympian, 15 year-old freeskier Maggie Voisin, is known for acrobatically careening through the air. On skis. Seriously? Seriously. Katie Uhlaender of McDonald, KS (pop. 163) took 4th place in the Women’s Skeleton, which requires an athlete to sled down an icy slope head first, with her chin and toes only millimeters from the ice. Sounds perfectly terrifying. And Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy, and Nick Goepper, the 3 U.S. athletes who swept the ski slopestyle competition all take gravity defying chances in their sport. They are also from towns smaller than 10,000.
Where does this willingness to take risk and aim high come from? It’s obviously a remarkable recipe of personal fortitude, raw talent, family, teachers, opportunity, and discipline. I bet community has something to do with it as well.
Because, whether it’s sending athletes to the Olympics, starting companies that grow vastly beyond our expectations, sending kids into the U.S. military, growing our food, managing our water, or developing and distributing our energy resources, rural and small town America has long been at the cutting edge. And as our country continues its 21st century evolution, I’ve no doubt that rural and small town Americans will continue to dare the impossible.
We may never figure out the exact ingredients for Olympic-level success. But I bet these communities are a lot like mine – proud beyond measure of our local achievers – be they athletes, soldiers, scholars, entrepreneurs, artists, and the list goes on with endeavors we haven’t yet considered.
So, today, for all the Team USA athletes in Sochi, congratulations on your success. We’ll tune in soon to the Paralympics coming up in March. We are praying for your safety, grateful for your efforts, and wish you well.
Go Team USA!