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Triple Threat
Swimmer makes mark in pool, triathlon, community work
by Jon Reidel

photo by Bill DiLillo

Putting in the training miles for an Ironman triathlon gives an athlete ample time to think. As Rebecca Witinok-Huber, a UVM senior and member of the swim team, trained last fall for her first Ironman, her thoughts often drifted to the children she taught in Malawi, Africa during a five-week summer trip.

“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.”

Teaching children about the environment and HIV/AIDS prevention in one of the world's poorest countries while scarcely missing a beat in her rigorous training typifies Witinok-Huber's optimism and determination. Upon her arrival in Malawi with World Camp Inc., 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 “farm girl” from Iowa City, Iowa harnessed her ingenuity and a formidable competitive streak, then improvised. After locating a small 20-yard pool, Witinok-Huber tied one end of a tether around her waist and the other to a tree and swam in place a few miles each day. She 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.

Not long after returning from Africa, Witinok-Huber won the 20th annual Esprit Triathlon in Île 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.

When Witinok-Huber enrolled in 2002, swim 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. Witinok-Huber notched a slew of top-three finishes this season and again qualified for the ECAC Championships in the 100 butterfly.

“She's a girl who 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. “For someone to be this good at such a young age isn't very common. She's a rare commodity in this sport.”
Meanwhile back in Iowa, mom Pat Witinok has high praise for those who have worked with her daughter at Vermont. “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.”

Comeback Cats Take it to the Final
Repeatedly proving one of Yogi Berra's great truths of life and baseball - “It ain't over till it's over” - the Catamounts capped a fine year by taking their final five wins with a rally in their last at bat. The magic finally came to an end when the University of Maine turned the tables with a 10th inning victory in the America East Baseball Championship game, played at UVM's Centennial Field.

The Catamounts (29-19) ended the season as the conference runner-up and their 29 wins are the second most in program history.

“We had our backs to the wall several times over the last two weeks yet this team never once quit,” said Vermont coach Bill Currier '84.

Read all about the baseball Cats and other UVM sports news at uvmathletics.com.