A Winning Approach to Wellness

By Ken DuBois, Editor

Javier Duque is helping Middle School students find the joy in athletics by focusing on fun and friendship

“It was probably the favorite part of my coaching career,” says Middle School physical education teacher and coach Javier Duque, recalling a key moment in a 2019 boys soccer championship game. After the first goal was scored against Catlin Gabel on an unlucky bounce, he says, “The entire team went to tell the goalie, ‘You're okay.’ To tap his back, to be there for him, and to not let him feel bad about it. When you go through that kind of hard time and you are able to succeed after that, it’s because you have the support from your teammates.”

“I’m very proud of my players to this day,” Javier says. As an afterthought, he adds, “Then they ended up winning the championship.”

Moments like this are the reason Javier chose a career in physical education: to help student-athletes bring their best selves forward in every situation. “Winning is important,” he says, “but sports is mainly an outlet to build good relationships. As long as you bring good partnership, and you are kind, and enjoy what you’re doing, and allow others to enjoy what they’re doing, that is the key. And that is what sports has given to me.”

For Javier, this positive approach to athletics and wellness has been a lifelong pursuit. Growing up in the city of Ibarra in Ecuador, he was in soccer cleats and competing by the age of five. At 13, his interest turned to basketball. He played on three high school championship teams and in regional and national competitions, and in his senior year he was assistant coach for his high school team. In a family full of lawyers, it became apparent that he was taking a different path.

“I love teaching the skills,” Javier says. “I love coaching. I love seeing progress. When a kid is happy, when a kid makes progress, it makes me happy. So I learned how to become a teacher.” He studied physical education in college, and in his third and fourth years, transitioned from playing on the basketball team to coaching professionally for two local high schools.

It never occurred to Javier to leave sunny, subtropical Ibarra until he met a new neighbor on his street, Catlin Gabel graduate Lesley Davis ’04. After several years, they married and moved back to Lesley’s hometown of Portland in 2012. Within days of arriving, she was taking Javier to school basketball games, where he made a big impression on Catlin Gabel’s athletics staff; after just a few months, he was offered a position as a track coach. A year later, he was a full-time Middle School PE teacher and head of the Middle School soccer program.

Now in his ninth year at Catlin Gabel, Javier is a self-described “pushy coach” who wants every student to work hard and be proud of their improvement. “I always tell my players, ‘I don’t want you to give up on yourself,’” he says, “’I want you to discover the potential that you have. Let’s go for it, let’s push ourselves to the best of our abilities every day. And let’s have fun with each other.’”

With that focus on fun and friendship, Javier has inspired hundreds of students to find physical activities they enjoy and develop healthy habits for life. He makes changes to his PE curriculum each year so that students are exposed to a wide variety of options; this year, those options include soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton, pickleball, aerobics, and dance—including the dances he loved when he was growing up.

“I’m going to be teaching salsa, bachata, and merengue,” Javier says. “If a kid goes to a Latin country, somebody might say, ‘Hey, let’s go dance some salsa.’ And they’re going to say, ‘Oh, yeah. I learned this with Javier. I learned this at Catlin Gabel.’”