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Holland's Huizing Cuts Swath Through Maryland Athletics

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

NICHD's Dr. Marjan Huizing

It may come as a surprise to learn that the first language of the Maryland state women's biathlon, cyclocross and cycling champion is not English, but Frisian. But that's only natural for a woman born 31 years ago in a little farming town in the north of Holland. That's where Dr. Marjan Huizing and her little sister would pedal an hour back and forth to school each day from age 6 to 18.


Now a postdoctoral fellow in NICHD's Heritable Disorders Branch, Huizing landed in the U.S. on May 1 last year to begin a 2 to 3-year stay at NIH. A week later she was the first woman across the finish line at the Ivymount School 5K footrace in Potomac, Md., which would be the first of many triumphs in the succeeding 12 months.

"It was funny, I didn't know where the race was, so I got out a map. Then I got on my mountain bike, because I didn't have a car yet, and followed the sidewalks to the race site," says Huizing, a Ph.D. from Nijmegen University who is studying lysosomal storage diseases at NIH. Tall, tautly muscled and tanned from a recent trip to Birmingham, Ala., where she qualified for the 1999 World Duathlon (same as biathlon — cycling and running) Championships by placing first in her age group and second among all women in the Powerman Alabama competition, she exudes openness and vitality, a virtual ambassador of health.

Frisian is but one of five languages she speaks; it is the dialect of the northern reaches of Holland. "I have an accent in every language but Frisian," she laughs. She learned Dutch in school, then German because many of the TV broadcasts in Holland originate in nearby Germany, and also studied French.

Meeting and Beating

She claims to love sports because it offers opportunities to meet people; she signed on almost immediately with the Montgomery County Road Runners Club and a cycling group out of Damascus, Md., the All American Bicycle Club, where she is affectionately known as "the Dutch All American." But it's also evident she likes to win. A resumé of her race results — in triathlons, biathlons, cycling and running — for the past 48 weeks includes 34 events, an embarrassing number of which say "1st Woman Overall." Her poorest finish of all was 14th on the second day of a 2-day cycling event in Columbia, Md., last fall.

The resumé states clearly what Huizing does with her weekends — crisscross the mid-Atlantic in search of a race. By car now, not by bike.

A crucial moment in the duathlon is the transition from biking to running. It involves a change of shoes, and converting from pedaling to striding. Here Huizing dismounts for the running portion of the event. Races can be won and lost at this juncture.

Interestingly, she didn't compete in sporting events until she was a university student. She joined the rowing club around age 20 at the agricultural school in Wageningen, a town on the River Rhine, where she studied molecular biology and biochemistry. "The training (for rowing) involved running and cycling. I found out that I was quite good compared to the other women."

Before that, her only experience with sports was cycling between school and the dairy farm on which she grew up. In the summer she rode horses with other kids in the area, occasionally participating in what Americans would call a rodeo. "We had ponies," she recalls. "Many of the farmers' children had horses, and we held small competitions. In the winter, from when I was a child, we speed-skated. There were all different kinds of levels — I was not that high. That's all the sports I did until I was 18."

During 3 of the 6 years of her combined undergraduate and M.A. training, Huizing rowed from January until June. In the summer, she did triathlons (run, bike, swim) and duathlons (run, bike, run). She took her sixth year abroad, at Australia's Monash University. "I didn't do much sports there. Everything was new, there were sights to see, parks to visit, lots of places to go."

When she got back from Down Under, her friends at home were getting seriously into triathlons. Says Huizing, "I started doing them, and I did very well." She entered many competitions, from local to national level. "The local races I could win, and nationally I was usually in the first 10 women. I did this for 3 years while I earned my Ph.D." During the last year of her Ph.D. work, she quit sports to concentrate on her studies.

One Success Leads to Another

When she arrived in America with her two bikes, a mountain bike and a triathlon model (specially made so that the pedal stroke approximates the leg's movement while running — this helps athletes make the transition between events quickly during biathlons), Huizing was anxious to train again, and to meet people.

"Once I was training again, I got better and better. I got faster and faster on bike and in running." She entered a handful of tri, bi and running events in 1998 and excelled in all of them. "When you do well, you're motivated to train again, which makes you want to race again. It feeds on itself. Success breeds more work, and more races."

Huizing claims plaque and trophy at one of her many wins.

Signal victories in the past year include a win last December on the Eastern Shore in an event called "cyclocross," which is a combination of off-road cycling and cross-country running — occasionally while carrying the bike past a variety of barriers. That earned her the Maryland/Delaware State Championship. By winning last July's Riverwatch Biathlon in North East, Md., she became women's state champ in that event. And in September she became the 30+ Maryland Woman Champion cyclist at the Poolesville Road Race.

Though a Marylander for less than a year, Huizing knows the rolling back roads of upper Montgomery County as well as she knows Wageningen; she trains there Tuesday and Thursday nights with the Potomac Pedalers when the weather is warm. And while she lives near Rock Creek Park, which she uses for long runs to Lake Needwood and back, she is not willing to ride there. "It's very dangerous to ride a bike in the park. I would rather go out of town to Damascus, Laytonsville or Poolesville." Wednesday nights find her at Richard Montgomery High School's track in Rockville, where she does speed training with members of the MCRRC. If it's cold and dark out, she lifts weights in the gym, or works out on her own bike made stationary by a special rig at her fitness center.

"It's fun to exchange sports, and not run every day," she explains. Taking occasional days off from training when she's tired, she looks forward to exercise almost as much for its social value as for the health benefit. "It's more a social thing than to focus on winning races," she insists.

But win she continues to do, and sometimes success means being bumped up a level. Her 3:12 performance in March's Alabama Powerman, which included a 10K run, a 60K bike ride, and another 10K run, automatically qualified her for the World Championships next October near Charlotte, N.C. "You had to come in first in your age group to qualify for the U.S. team," she said. "I came in first in my age group, and second overall." All she'll say of the grueling regimen is, "It was extremely long."

To get ready for the championships, she plans to begin more serious training 2 months prior to the race, which means running, biking and practicing transitions. She credits her gym's trainer with preparing her to do so well in Alabama: "I wouldn't have qualified without him."

A committed amateur, Huizing has no plans to turn pro. Other than a dream of participating at least once in Hawaii's famed Ironman Triathlon, perhaps in 2000, she is unsure of the future, both in sport and medicine. "It's good to have more than a year to decide," she says, sounding genuinely relieved.

She had originally planned to become a clinical geneticist or biochemist, but is now considering another postdoctoral assignment. "I really enjoy lab work," she said. "Maybe I'll just stay in clinical research."

Though she doesn't know which country or field will eventually claim her, one thing is certain. There better be room for trophies and T-shirts.

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