Windsor, Ont., teacher and elite track coach Kurt Downes, seen here at the 2019 IAAF championships in Qatar. Downes pours his time and resources in both careers to steering his charges to realizing their potential. Photo courtesy Kurt Downes

Teacher, track coach pays it forward

  • February 27, 2021

If Kurt Downes’ sixth grade students or fellow teachers are ever looking for him during his lunch break, they can usually find him where they can the rest of the school day — in his classroom.

On an early February afternoon, Downes, a teacher at St. James Catholic Elementary School in Windsor, Ont., who is also an elite-level track and field coach, is spending his lunch hour discussing housekeeping with staff who visit his room while also patiently tending to student’s needs. These days that’s often a kid coming in from the schoolyard to request a fresh disposable COVID mask.

“Can you zip up your coat please?” Downes asks one student as he heads back out.  

Shortly afterwards, the entire class bursts in from recess to begin their socially distanced lunch at their desks (due to COVID regulations, lunch periods are broken into shifts to limit student contact). He addresses their noise level in his kind but authoritative tone, and the 11-year-olds’ clamour dulls to a controlled buzz — at least for a few minutes.

“My thought process is if I’m in here with them (in the classroom), the amount of trouble that they get into is less,” said Downes. “I try to spend as much time in here with them as possible. It also allows me to see the things that they think they can get away with.”

It’s how Downes has spent his career as an educator and a coach, pouring his time and resources into young people in hopes of steering them in a direction that will open opportunities to fully realize their potential. He’s coached 800-metre runner Brandon McBride to a Canadian record in 2018 and is the founder and head coach at Border City Athletics Club, where he has trained close to 50 athletes to scholarships since 2013.

In the 2018-19 season he was named Athletics Canada coach of the year and in January was featured in Canadian Running Magazine as its community builder of the year. He is back in the classroom this school year after taking a sabbatical to fully devote to McBride as he prepared for the 2020 Olympics Games in Tokyo, which were delayed a year.

Downes teaches in a diverse community where children often don’t see themselves represented in an educator like him. With a keen eye for raw talent, part of his goal is to get young Black girls involved in sport. He has two in his class now with great potential who he’s been encouraging to run.

While working on his Masters in Kinesiology at Western University in 2011, his thesis involved developing a training program to help retain 18- to 23-year-old women in track and field, many of whom were dropping out of sports after university. He makes  sure his athletes are surrounded by positive female role models, particularly through the top senior athletes under his tutelage who have become coaches and mentors.

The pandemic, he says, has allowed him the opportunity to brainstorm ideas to take the vision even further. In November he hosted a clinic for young female athletes and a virtual conference to encourage and empower women and visible minorities in coaching. With a goal to impact more and more children, he works to grow his contact networks with university coaches down south and raise funds to ensure the scope of possibilities for kids both inside and outside of the classroom are wide.

Originally from Scarborough, Ont., Downes admits his life could have gone down a very different path had it not been for the influence of his family, teachers and coaches. The way he devotes his time to developing his students and athletes is a direct result of the many people in life who helped him along the way, he says.

“I feel like I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a lot of people pour into me,” said the University of Windsor varsity track and field alumnus who competed in sprints, relays and jumps. “I’ve had lots of coaches, female and male, that have spent quite a bit of time answering my questions. I feel like usually in a day there’s quite a bit of time where I should be able to pour into someone else and hopefully affect some positive change in their life.”

One of those teachers is Agnes Sullivan, his Grade 3 teacher at St. Henry Catholic School in his hometown. She recognized his potential on and off the track and encouraged him to stay on the path, helping him to get into Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School, which is known for its athletics program. The pair share a close bond to this day.

“He calls all the time,” said Sullivan, a mother of two who retired from teaching in 2009. “We are attached at the hip. It’s great when you get to see where your kids have gone when they’ve gotten older. He’s one of mine regardless. I say I have a chef, a lawyer and a track coach. Two of my own and one him.”

Sullivan sees a kind man who really connects with his students and athletes.

“It’s his kindness that stands out,” said Sullivan. “I think he really understands the kids in his classroom. That’s where you start. You plant the seeds that, ‘You’re good enough’ and that ‘You can do this.’ You tell them, ‘If you try, you’re going to fail, but you’re going to get back up and try again,’ and that’s what he did.”

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