The Record's 2011-12 Male Athlete Of The Year: SJA's James Fitzhugh

Photograph by Michael Beniash

ST. JOHNSBURY -- St. Johnsbury Academy senior James Fitzhugh, the Record's Athlete of the Year for 2011-2012, has wowed and amazed fans, fellow competitors, his coaches, opposing coaches, and his teammates from the cross country running season to the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons.

Fitzhugh won four individual state titles his senior year and ran legs of four state champion relay teams this season. His performances were instrumental as the Hilltoppers claimed their first indoor and their 30th outdoor state championship. His titles include the 300- and 600-meter runs and the 4x200- and 4x400-meter relays in indoor; and the 200- and 400-meter dashes and the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays in outdoor.

Tuesday, Fitzhugh added to his lore by crushing the field in the 1,500-meter run -- the final event of the two-day state decathlon meet in Burlington.

"He's unbelievable," Lyndon Institute coach Jack Harris, who witnessed Fitzhugh's talent as a rival coach in all three seasons the past two years. "Not only a good athlete, he talks to kids on other teams as a 400 runner. Then he runs the fastest mile of the day.

"Three years ago, we hadn't heard of James Fitzhugh. It will be a long time before St. J gets another one like him."

Fitzhugh was playing soccer in the fall and Ultimate Frisbee in the spring his freshman year. He would trade soccer for cross country running.

"There are only so many sports to choose from in the fall," Fitzhugh said. "I knew I could do [cross country] without trying out, failing miserably, and being cut.

"And it was a curiosity. I wanted to see what I could do."

During his junior year, he tried indoor track and for Fitzhugh and the track and field programs -- it was literally off to the races.

"My sister (Sarah) started doing track before I did," Fitzhugh said. Sarah also came over to track and field from Ultimate. Fitzhugh would compete in indoor track in the winter, but he planned to return to Ultimate in the spring. "After winning three state titles," he said, "I couldn't go back to Ultimate."

"His sister came from other sports and had success in track," SJA coach Chip Langmaid said. "She's the one who got him into it."

When Langmaid first took notice of Fitzhugh, he was a junior coming out for the cross country team. "I thought he was a decent kid -- no superstar," Langmaid said.

By indoor track season, Langmaid saw plenty from Fitzhugh. He won the 600 by four seconds and finished 11th in the 55 at his first indoor meet. He followed that with a fourth in the 400 at the star-laden Dartmouth Relays.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Fitzhugh said. "I would just go all out as far as I could. There wasn't too much more thought than that."

The first inkling that he would find success in indoor track came that fall.

"What really started that was back in cross country," Fitzhugh said. "It's about 600 meters around the track and behind the bleachers. I started out running with Hayden [Bunnell]. Then I caught up to him and passed him. I came in first. I thought, 'That wasn't that bad.' It was the first indication I was quick at something like that."

At the state meet his junior year, he won the 300 and 600 meters and ran a leg of the winning 4x400-meter relay. His senior year, he won four more events as the Hilltoppers won the overall indoor title. Fitzhugh called watching Dage Minors crossing the finish line to win the 4x400 and clinching the indoor state title his favorite sports moment of the year.

That moment continued as the Hilltoppers returned to St. Johnsbury to ring the bell. "It was Rez Fest," Fitzhugh recalled. "All the dorm students were in the gym. We're holding the trophy aloft in front of a bunch of screaming people. You don't forget that easily."

Fitzhugh's main outdoor events were the 200, 400, the 4x100-meter relay, and the 4x400-meter relay. When called upon, he could run a meaningful leg of the 4x800 as well. "I've had to think about relays," Langmaid said. "Relays [have been] less important. You get fewer points per kid.

"James being on relays became huge. Now you've got a relay team that's special. James really gave us that at several meets."

Over two years, Langmaid saw an athlete who could pole vault, hurdle, and as he proved Tuesday -- a sprinter who could run distance races.

Never a prolific cross country runner -- he would finish just 49th overall at the 2011 state championships -- Fitzhugh did provide an unexpected sixth-place finish to help the Hilltoppers clinch a NVAC Mountain title with three of their potential scoring runners out with injuries. Fitzhugh passed two Harwood runners coming down the final hill to move up two spots and cost the Highlanders four of the five points they lost by.

"I just had a pretty good day that day," Fitzhugh said. "Normally, I despise that course, but I knew I was going downhill and I just thought, 'I gotta blow by those two guys'."

"The thing I always come back to -- he loves to compete," Langmaid said. "He always gives his best. His attitude is huge. You know you are going to get his best every time."

Fitzhugh credited Langmaid and coaches A.J. Mardin, Kyle Powers, and Hank Eaton for helping with workouts and learning proper techniques and form.

SJA assistant coach Steve Jolliffe said Fitzhugh was on his own sometimes when practicing. "He's really self-driven," Jolliffe said. "We would design a workout. He'd add to it. He was totally committed to completing the workout on his own. Pretty amazing for a high school kid to do.

"I was surprised at how good he was," Jolliffe said of his first impression of Fitzhugh. "He's that hidden talent. I coached in California for nine years. We were a pretty big school. I think I had only one other [sprinter-] middle-distance runner who was in the class of James, and he was with us all four years.

"James did it in only two years. It says a lot.

"He always seems to have another gear when he is challenged. Amazing -- the speed he currently has and the will to win.

"But the thing that impresses me the most," Jolliffe said, "he's not just a great athlete, he's a good scholar, too. He's that complete package."

"He's a model representative of our school and athletic program," SJA athletic director David McGinn said. "An excellent young man and a great student.

"I've heard of how many of his coaches have given him a charge to do something," McGinn said. "He's not only going to do it, but do it well -- even in a way that exceeds the expectations of the coach.

"In an individual sport, it's not just his participation, but his support of the team. He has really garnered a great deal of my respect."

What's not often talked about is Fitzhugh suffers from sports-related asthma. "I don't get asthma attacks," Fitzhugh said. "It just makes it difficult to breathe." He said a "tight throat" and "wheezing" are usually the worst of it.

And performing on a big stage was nothing new for Fitzhugh. He has acted in Oklahoma ("worst play ever") and a one-act play ("a bit of a flop, too") as well as playing the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland. "It's not something I'd do for a career," he said, "but it's certainly something that's fun."

Fitzhugh lives with his parents, Karen and Mark, in Peacham. He will attend Washington University in St. Louis, where he hopes to continue his track and field career. His sister, Sarah, is in Florence, Italy as part of a fashion design-art history program through Marist University. His brother, Chris, is finishing up at Olin College in Needham, Mass., in the field of robotics.

As unassumingly and quietly as he came onto the running scene in cross country his junior year, Tuesday's 1,500 was an electric exit for Fitzhugh. In the last event of a grueling two-day decathlon, he posted a 4:20.42. Before the meet he said, "I am curious as to what I can get in the 1,500. I know it's going to hurt."

The only thing Fitzhugh might have hurt are a few feelings, although it appeared -- judging by the looks on his fellow competitors -- that respect, admiration, and amazement were more likely to describe the feelings he elicited with his wire-to-wire 1,500 win.

Watching from the infield as Fitzhugh pulled away from the field with every stride and then broke into an all-out sprint the final 175 meters, teammate and fellow senior Brittney Jackson-Woffard's exclamation was concise and succinct: "He's just unbelievable."

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