Outdoor track facilities needed at Fort High, says long-time coach John Dutton

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The extracurricular activities that take place after the bell rings at the end of the day play a vital role in the high school experience.

At Fort Frances High School, the future of cross country and track and field looks bright. The school boasts of having one of the biggest and most successful teams in northwestern Ontario, having sent dozens of athletes to tournaments over the past 10 seasons and having hosted track meets for nearby schools with participation numbers reaching 200.

The team is now entering their fourth week of practices and 90 athletes have signed up for the fifth week.

As student engagement in track and field and cross country continues to grow, outdoor athletic facilities designed for safe and effective training are needed more than ever.

John Dutton, retired music teacher and coach for cross country and track and field teams at Fort Frances High School for the past 17 years, says the team struggles with unlevel and inconsistent surfaces to run on.

“Fort Frances High School needs proper rubber surface tract, along with the accompanying areas for throwing and jumping disciplines,” Dutton said at the Rainy River District School Board meeting on Mar. 5.

“Building a track at Fort High would not only provide the proper training and competition venue for track and field athletes, but will also enhance physical education programs here and become a hub for elementary schools to hold events, field days and track dates.”

A proper training ground used for track and field practices would also benefit other extracurricular teams such as hockey and football who could use the facility for dryland training, Dutton says, adding that students and staff could also have a space to work on staying more active and fit.

“Not to mention how attractive this would be to the community at large,” Dutton added. “There are currently hundreds of local residents who walked around here yesterday.”

As a former teacher and long-time coach at Fort High, Dutton says it’s been a privilege to make a positive impact in students’ lives. One of the great joys of his life has been helping kids realize their potential, whether through the classes he taught or the sports he coached. Through his morning announcements, Dutton always encouraged those interested in extracurriculars to bring a water bottle and a friend.

“Because while many students have found their place in high school, many more have not,” he said. “Many are shy, lack confidence, or motivation to get involved. But only dream about stepping on that theater stage or becoming a Muskie and proudly wearing that big capital M on their chest.”

Dutton recalls having a “modest start” back in 2006. At the time, he could fit the entire track team in his Dodge minivan.

“And not even fill all the seats,” he said. “We had no resources, no equipment and no medals, but the kids were engaged and they were having fun.”

However, extracurriculars have seen rapid growth. Last year, track and field saw 75 members and filled two coach buses at events. And in the past Spring, the team hosted two track and field meets at Fort Frances High School that gathered almost 200 athletes from nearby schools.

Dutton noted that none of it was possible without student and parent volunteers, and that the level of community participation he has seen at Fort High is “far beyond the actual competitors.”

“What do I love about track and field?” Dutton said to the board. “Track offers a lot of different running events from sprints to hurdles to steeplechase and relays, and six field events for jumpers and throwers. There’s something for every athlete and at Fort High—we do them all.”

“I strongly believe that the extracurriculars that happen after the bell rings at the end of the day plays a vital role in the high school experience,” he said.

Sharing a funny reflection by his granddaughter while they were on the way to school one day, Dutton ended the delegation with a heartfelt message.

“I was recently driving with my eight year old granddaughter taking her to school. And out of the blue she said, ‘I hope when I get to high school you’re still alive so I can be on your track team,’” Dutton said, gathering a round of laughter from trustees. “I’m not sure what my future may bring, but it is my goal that when she gets to the high school I’m both breathing and coaching.”

“As a longtime coach, I couldn’t be happier with the direction our programs are headed. And I couldn’t be more proud of our student athletes. Our future looks very bright,” Dutton said.