On a hot spring day at St. Augustine’s track two Tuesday’s ago, the sun beaming, Johnny Dutch and seven others are preparing for the World Championships in Bejing, China in August.
It’s a good day to run, especially after the previous day was unusually cool.
Four of them – including Dutch, a former high school standout at Clayton – walked on to the track and got into their lanes. The whistle blew. Dutch and his running partners got set.
The whistle blew again, and they took off, running 100 meters on the track.
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Each day the preparation for the 400 meter hurdles is the same.
For the first few months, work on speed. Then the next few, work on rhythm.
Dutch still has dreams to make the Olympics, after failing to make it the first two times. With a new coach in George Williams and new running partners, Dutch feels rejuvenated, a year after he almost called it quits.
Reached a crossroad
Dutch almost gave up.
The track and field star hurdler, then 25, was dealing with injuries and personal issues in 2014, he says, and came to a crossroad.
“Literally, I was thinking about the next phase of my life,” Dutch said.
Maybe he should hang up the cleats and switch to film-making, he thought.
“I didn’t have a contract and it became difficult to support myself,” Dutch said. “That’s why I came home. Doing things that are difficult to achieve, I thought, ‘I don’t even know if I want to run anymore.’”
A star hurdler in high school at Clayton High, and then in college at the University of South Carolina, Dutch was one of the best in the world. But he came up just short at the Olympic Trials in 2008 and 2012.
That meant, another four years of waiting for the next Olympic games.
“It really feels like the world is going to end,” he said of not making the Olympic team. “It feels like you’re in a great relationship and then you’re dumped. Then your heart is broken.”
But Dutch talked to his mom, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – supporters of his career.
“My mom always said, ‘I don’t see you as normal,’” he recalled his mom, Deborah Dutch, saying. “Ever since I was a little boy, she said she had seen something in me and always had faith I would be something great.”
So he kept running. Dutch is now training for the World Championships in August in Bejing, China and then the Olympics in Rio in 2016.
Now healthy, and with a new coach, he ranks No. 2 in the world, behind Bershawn Jackson, a running partner he trains with. Jackson, a St. Augustine alumnus, won a bronze in the 2008 Bejing Olympics.
Dutch hopes to make the World Championships this summer.
“I knew that he had this drive to be the best,” Deborah Dutch said. “And sometimes I think like most other athletes, they are the best at what they do is because they have their competitive drive, and they are not going to stop until they reach their goal.
“He got down on himself,” she continued. “I know that fight. I’m always telling him ‘oh no. We’re not going to do that.’ I was telling him, ‘you have come too far. You might as well go all the way.’”
Strong work ethic
Dutch is coached by George Williams. Williams, the track & field coach and athletic director at St. Augustine’s University, has coached 39 Olympians, including three gold medalists. Since he began coaching in 1976, his track and field programs have won 35 national championships.
Williams said one of Dutch’s best attributes and why he will make the Olympic team is because of his work ethic.
“He’s a hard worker,” Williams said.
Williams had offered to coach Dutch for years if he ever came back home. Dutch previously lived in Miami while a professional. He said he knew Dutch had talent and saw some things he could work on with him to help him get to the next level. So when Dutch came home, the two connected.
“Running 400 meters and jumping over hurdles is hard for anybody. I don’t care who you are,” Williams said. “Especially if you don’t know the rest period.
“He has to work on application of how to run the race so he can be stronger at the end rather than weaker at the end. Right now he’s a little too aggressive at running the 400 meters.”
But Williams insists we’ll be seeing Dutch at the Olympics come next year.
“I think we’ll see a whole new Johnny Dutch and we’ll see him on the podium,” he said. “With good work ethic, the sky’s the limit.”
Dutch’s mother taught him the importance of working hard. Being a single parent, divorced with two children, Deborah had to hold down three jobs to provide for the family.
She was an executive assistant during the day. She was scorekeeper for Parks and Recreation department and she cleaned buildings in the afternoon and at night. But Deborah didn’t want to leave her children at home so she brought them with her to her latter two jobs.
Johnny and his sister would help clean up the office buildings.
“I wanted to instill in them a work ethic,” she said. “I knew that would be a good example for them, me taking on those roles. You do what you’re supposed to do for your family.”
There were times when the family was struggling financially. Then one night, the lights went out.
“I remember we had to use candles to get around the house,” Johnny Dutch said. “As a kid that was fun, but we were struggling and I didn’t know.
“I rarely heard my mom cry and if she did I didn’t know about it. She’s a strong woman. I think that’s why me and my sister are where we are now. She’s my biggest hero.”
When Deborah finally bought her first house 15 years ago, she wanted to be a foster mother to give back. Her daughter was in college, but Johnny was still a child.
He struggled during that time, having to share his mom. The children she fostered had many problems and needed a lot of attention. And his father wasn’t there either.
“It got to a point where when I was a teenager I got really bitter because he wasn’t in my life,” Johnny Dutch said. “I didn’t understand why other people had a mother and a father in the home. Things got difficult at home but I got through it.”
He made amends with his father and forgave him. And he started to understand why his mother became a foster mother. The events in his life have given him ideas in his film-making career.
When Dutch isn’t running, he makes films. He has a bachelor’s degree in Media Arts - Film Production from South Carolina. His main genre are horror and sci-fi films.
His latest film is Dead Day 2 a two-part short film about two young adults searching for refuge in an apocalyptic, zombie dominated world.
Making films gives him a balance, he said.
Dutch recently performed in one of N&O High School Sports Editor Tim Steven’s plays about the Civil War skirmishes that happened in Garner. He played the character, Henry Ford, one of Garner’s first residents.
“Fortunately I’m able to have a lot of time to write, produce,” Dutch said. “And working on film takes my mind off (running) so I don’t overstress.”
He’s recently started writing a script based on the Baltimore riots. Protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a man critically injured while in Baltimore police custody, turned violent two months ago. The incident eventually led to the indictments of six officers involved his transportation and arrest. The scene was shown on many TV networks across the world.
Dutch’s story will be one that that focuses on women’s rights and equality. He wants to film in the early fall.
Dutch said he was inspired while at a film festival at seeing the reactions of people watching another person’s film. Some would gasp. He heard a few sniffs, mumbles and whispers. And one film had so much of an impact on him that it gave him goosebumps.
“I want to see them feel motivated and inspired by my work as they did his,” Dutch said.
Worlds, then Olympics
For many athletes, the older they get the more they start to slow down.
And that’s even more evident with track and field athletes, where running so many miles can wear down a body.
But even as a 26-year-old track star and hurdler/filmmaker – who will be 27 by the time the 2016 Olympics roll around – Dutch said he hasn’t quite reached his prime yet.
As he ages, he says he’ll get better. He takes care of his body and eats healthy.
“Hurdles is a mature event that doesn’t focus on raw speed,” Dutch said. “”It’s all about rhythm. It takes a while to develop rhythm, (whereas) raw speed you’re just going. Rhythm comes with seasoning.”
That’s hard to believe for a high school standout, who broke records at a young age and who many thought at one point was the best hurdler to come out of the state, let alone the Triangle.
It will be his third shot at the Olympics next year and he’s hoping three times is a charm.
But if things happen to not work out, he’ll probably try again. And even then, he’s fine with his other passion in film.
“I want people to look at me and say ‘Hey, there’s that film-maker that runs well,” he said.
But whether he knows it, they already do.