Ria Cuthbertson has come full circle from being a young lifeguard to managing the team at the Sports complex

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

While the pool is currently closed, residents of the Town of Fort Frances will have noticed that there have been additions to the offerings from the Town’s recreation department to help offset the missing aquatics programs. These programs are, in-part, a product of the work of the Town’s new Recreation and Aquatics supervisor, Ria Cuthbertson.

The role was revamped under previous Recreation and Culture Manager Tyler Young, but it was filled only briefly during his tenure. Cuthbertson was brought on by new Recreation and Culture manager Nathan Young in August of last year.

Over the course of her short tenure, Cuthbertson has taken the responsibility of managing the programming and staff at the Memorial Sports Complex as well as adding other recreation programs to the town’s schedule.

“Mainly since I started I’ve been focusing on staff training, scheduling, and staff management,” Cuthbertson said. “In addition to that, program development and implementation. With a lot of changes going on here (The sports centre) it’s been a lot of creative thinking and trial and error that we’ve been working with.”

Last fall it was announced that the pool at the sports complex would need to be closed for an extended period of time to address structural issues with the roof and to complete renovations to the pool area so they’ve had to change directions with regards to programming in the absence of aquatic options.

“I’ve heard ‘What am I supposed to do on my lunchtime now? I used to come here and swim every day.’ So we started yoga and tai chi on Mondays and Wednesdays, which is during the lunch hour so we have found that has been something that has kind of bridged that gap.” Cuthbertson said. “We have pickleball upstairs in the auditorium. As you know, there’s been an outcry for that. So we’ve solved those problems and managed to reintroduce that. We’re also hoping to get a spin bike instructor and utilize more of our spaces because some of it has just been sitting, some of it requires renovation, but what can be used, we feel should be used.”

With the staff who would normally be working around the pool, Cuthbertson has been able to get creative and host more children’s programming. Rec’N Crew has been running for kids ages 6-12 at the East End Hall, they have been able to hold camps on PD days when kids are out of school as well as adding programs for toddlers and parents. There have also been options for younger kids during Lakers games and hockey tournaments.

“We have received so much positive feedback,” she said. “We have a busy lobby when there’s hockey tournaments going on so it’s a little bit more structure and supervision. We have crafting and music and lawn games and all kinds of stuff going on up there just to pull the kids out of the lobby and get them into a place where they can interact and have fun and be safe. Because it’s a full place on the weekends.”

They are also launching a Family Day camp as well as a March Break Camp for children whose parents don’t necessarily have the option to take that time off.

Part of the job Cuthbertson has done has been training the staff at the Sports Centre to be in leadership when they were originally hired to be lifeguards and teach swimming lessons.

“So with a focus on staff training, I’ve been doing a lot of in-service work,” she said. “So almost on a monthly basis, we’ve been getting together for three hours and identifying one main goal or topic for that in-service session and focusing in. One of the issues that has been kind of identified in the last year to my knowledge is the customer service aspect of the front desk and approachability and just making the place more welcoming.”

Cuthbertson says she drew on her experience as a flight attendant to help teach the staff some additional customer service skills.

She says from her office near the customer service counter she has observed Sports Complex customers ask about the town’s offerings so they used one in-service session to help brainstorm activities around Fort Frances.

“I also sit and listen, and I hear folks come into town and say, ‘What is there to do in this town?’ and there’s not always an immediate response,” she said. “Folks just shrug their shoulders and go ‘well, I don’t know.’ So we brainstormed and came up with an extensive list. So when people come here and they say ‘what is there to do in this town?’ We have quick access to a response based on what their needs are, so challenging the receptionists to engage in a conversation and find out what people are looking for and provide them with the resources because we do have a lot to offer here.”

Feedback from residents has shown Cuthbertson that people are eager for the pool to reopen. Renovations are ongoing but they are hoping to have the pool open again in March. There had been difficulty due to a shortage of lifeguards.

“People want to be back in the pool, I do too. During this downtime we have been working on training our staff with Aquafit, aqua therapy, and standard first aid courses so when we are able to open back up, our lane swims, our Aquafit, everything that we had before will be back and more so taking that seriously right taking there,” she said. “We want to be in the water. It was a big change for a lot of people because it’s so much a part of their daily life and their routine to not have time in the water.”

“We’ve shifted gears a little bit when it comes to bridging that gap. We have a customer service position now at the front desk. So that enables our lifeguards to be in a lifeguard or instructor role as opposed to trying to cover reception at the end of the night,” Cuthbertson said. “The other part was there was a gap during COVID where folks weren’t getting trained. We’ve managed to catch up, so the first eight weeks that we had swimming lessons when I started here, we were having the new instructors shadow the experienced instructors. So once the pool does reopen, we’re hoping to right away have our staff right in the pool training again ready to get going with swimming lessons as soon as humanly possible.”

Ria Cuthbertson is the Town of Fort Frances’ new Recreation and Aquatics Supervisor at the Memorial Sports Centre. Cuthbertson, who has been in the job since November 2023 has come full circle, having worked as a lifeguard at the pool as a teenager. She said she is focused on listening to the community and what they want from the Centre, as well as staff training. – Allan Bradbury photo

Cuthbertson’s desire to see the pool back up and running comes from a personal place as well.

“So I guess growing up spending my summers at the lake and spending the school year as an Aquanaut–That was the swim team when I was a kid– we were always around water and it was a life skill, a basic necessity to know water safety and and further develop your swimming skills,” she said. “That was something that the kids in my family, most of us, thrived in that environment. So I went through the swimming lessons as well as the Aquanauts and then graduated into becoming a lifeguard and worked here as a teen. It was my favorite job ever. So I really saw the benefits of not only being involved in like a community based program you really got to know people and engage with the public. But also knowing that you’ve made a difference. There’s still people that come up to me today or people that are bringing their kids in and I taught them swimming lessons so you see it coming full circle and I think you know when you develop those swimming skills you want to pass them on and keep that going.”