By Jon Reidel Article published October 27, 2004
When Rebecca Witinok-Huber, a UVM junior and member of the swim team, is in the midst of one of the many long runs she logs in preparation for an upcoming triathlon her thoughts often drift to the children she taught in Malawi, Africa during a five-week trip there last summer.
In many ways, her experience teaching children about the environment and HIV/AIDS prevention in one of the world’s poorest countries, while at the same time training for her first Ironman triathlon, typifies the way Witinok-Huber has lived her life since coming to UVM from Iowa City.
“I think about those kids a lot. They have a place inside you — a piece of your heart,” says Witinok-Huber, who is studying wildlife biology. “I feel like I’ve been very lucky and blessed with a lot of things, so I saw the trip as an amazing opportunity to give something back — to try to make people smile. It wasn’t easy trying to train at the same time, but I found a way to make it happen.”
But not without a struggle. Upon her arrival in Malawi with World Camp Inc., a non-profit organization designed to educate children in impoverished communities about HIV/AIDS education, environmental awareness, and nutrition, Witinok-Huber was told that biking was too dangerous and that she couldn’t run alone or show her legs in public. Maintaining her weekly peak training of 50 miles of running, 300 miles of biking and 10 miles of swimming appeared impossible.
But the self described "Iowa farm girl" with a love of animals and a fiercely competitive spirit improvised. After locating a small 20-yard pool, Witinok-Huber tied one end of a tether around her waist and the other to a nearby tree and swam in place a few miles each day. She also worked out a deal that allowed her to run with a partner at a nearby golf course. For weight training she attached blocks and gallon jugs to a pole.
“She truly amazes me,” says her mother, Pat Witinok, a teacher and geologist who often travels to Burlington to see her daughter swim. “She’s always had the ability to adapt to whatever environment she’s in. UVM has been such a supportive environment. Her coaches and her professors have been interested in her as a whole person. The teachers in natural resources have shown great respect for her athletics and the athletic department has supported her academically. She’s always been an Iowa Hawkeye, but I think now she’s truly a Catamount.”
Ed Colodny and ‘Foxy the Pet Pig’
Not long after returning from Africa, Witinok-Huber won the 20th annual Esprit Triathlon in Ile Notre Dame, Quebec, covering the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and marathon run of 26.2 miles in just under 11 hours. Considering that most triathletes peak around age 30, the win by Witinok-Huber, 20, was surprising, especially for a first-time Ironman competitor. Her time qualified her for the 2005 Hawaii Ironman — the most prestigious triathlon.
Given her background growing up on a farm near Iowa City with 20,000 hogs, Witinok-Huber’s work ethic isn’t surprising. Her mother remembers thinking her daughter had something special after watching her win a junior showmanship award, which required her then tiny 10-year-old to walk around a 200-pound hog at an Iowa fair. She also swam daily, ran and was a member of 4H.
After a successful high school swimming career, Witinok-Huber started looking at colleges with good swim teams and strong wildlife biology programs. She heard UVM was strong in both areas and decided to take a visit. While on a tour of the campus Witinok-Huber ran into interim president Ed Colodny, who offered to show her how to get to her orientation class. Already hooked on UVM, the encounter reassured her feeling that Burlington was where she wanted to spend the next four years.
“I told him that I was from Iowa and he started telling me about an essay he’d read about a student from there who showed hogs and had a pet pig named Foxy. I told him that I was the one that wrote it. We laughed about it, but I was highly impressed that out of thousands of applicants he remembered that,” she says.
When Witinok-Huber enrolled in 2002, coach Gerry Cournoyer thought she had enormous potential. She has since exceeded his highest expectations by guiding the Catamounts to eight wins in 2003-2004 (the most since the 1985-86 season) and by qualifying for the ECAC Championship in the 100-meter butterfly after placing 10th at the America East Championship.
Her times this year have been even more impressive. She won the 50-meter butterfly in a time of 28.48 in UVM’s opening meet (she was also third in the 100-meter butterfly). She’s also an honor-roll student and community volunteer.
“She’s a girl that has really grown and blossomed at UVM,” Cournoyer says. “She was unsure about some things when she first got here, but through a tremendous work ethic is already well beyond where she was last year. We knew she had potential, but she already surpassed that above and beyond what she’s accomplished in the pool. From a community service standpoint, she’s been such an asset working with (at-risk) students from the Baird School and with kids in Special Olympics.”
It’s in the sport of triathlon, however, that Cournoyer, who coaches a number of other local triathletes, sees his star pupil excelling on a professional and maybe even Olympic stage.
“She’s going to be an outstanding triathlete and can go professional after she graduates,” Cournoyer says. The Montreal Gazette concurs, calling her a “promising young star” after her Quebec win. “She can make ability to make the Olympic Trials,” Cournoyer continues. “For someone to be this good at such a young age isn’t very common. She’s a rare commodity in this sport.”