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Former U. of C. Runner Julia Sizek Vying for NCAA Woman of the Year Award

By Justin Breen | September 9, 2013 6:47am
 Recent University of Chicago graduate Julia Sizek is one of 30 semifinalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award.
Julia Sizek
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Editor's note: Sizek was not among the nine finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year award.


HYDE PARK — Chris Hall, the track and cross-country coach at the University of Chicago, has seen many special student-athletes in his 13 years.

But Hall said he's never witnessed someone as unique as recent graduate Julia Sizek, one of 30  remaining finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year award.

"I have Rhodes Scholars and so forth, but I have never had anybody who's done so much by the time they've graduated," said Hall, of Hyde Park. "A lot of people have done extra extraordinary things, but just the sheer volume of the things she's done, I can't think of anybody who's done all that.

"But you're going to have a real difficult time getting her to say anything positive about herself," Hall said. "Julia is not a self-promoter."

A resume full of accomplishments

The Woman of the Year Award, in its 22nd year, honors "the athletics achievements of outstanding young women, but also their academic achievements, community service and leadership," according to the NCAA website.

The organization on Wednesday will whittle the 30 remaining candidates to nine — three in each division — and announce the winner on Oct. 20 in Indianapolis.

Sizek, 22, appreciated being in the top 30 from an original list of more than 450 student-athletes.

"But I also think it would be wrong for me to take it as an indication that I am high and mighty or better than other people," Sizek said. "I didn't think I would get this far, and I am surprised they picked me in the first place."

Highlights on Sizek's resume include:

• Graduating with a 3.86 grade point average — "It's just a number," Sizek said — in a double major of anthropology and international studies.

• All-America selection in cross-country and track, where she specialized in middle distances. She was a captain in both sports for the Maroons.

• Summer internship in Varanasi, India, where she was a music and English instructor to about 100 students.

• President of the South Side Free Music Program, where she taught violin to underprivileged Chicagoans. She also helped the organization secure a $5,000 grant last year, which bought it violins, guitars, cellos, synthesizers, headphones, clarinets, flutes and cables.

• Student organizer for the Woodlawn Collaborative, which "builds a bridge" between the university and the surrounding Woodlawn neighborhood.

"What makes Julia stand out is her focus on community," said Crystal Coats, assistant director at U. of C.'s Community Service Center. "She was just very, very involved."

Sizek lives in the Colorado Desert in California, where temperatures soar past 110 degrees, but she still finds time to run 30 miles a week. There, Sizek is an Aizik Wolf Post-Baccalaureate fellow and an intern with the Native American Land Conservancy. The group "works to protect sacred lands and strengthen Native American cultural identity while promoting cross-cultural understanding."

Sizek foresees a career in human-rights activism. In 10 years, she hopes to have completed her Ph.D. in anthropology and either be working in a human rights-related field focusing on land rights, or teaching at a university.

"I have always been very interested in trying not just to help people, but to work with people and make things better in the world," Sizek said.

Never bored, always active

A mundane existence was never an option for Sizek.

"Only boring people get bored. That's what my parents told me when I was little," she said. "I don't think I'm ever bored."

Sizek's parents are Jacquie Housel, a professor of urban geography, and Howard Sizek, a scientist. Sizek started running at 15 months old, when her mother gave her stroller to her younger brother Philip when he was born.

"She had to run to keep up," Housel said.

Like her mom and dad, Sizek said she has "eclectic interests." She wrote a college thesis — titled "The Power of Watersheds as Methodology in Thai National Park Politics" — because she was fascinated by the intersection between humans and nature. Her extremely limited free time is sometimes spent making and cooking buttermilk sandwich bread because her father did the same while she grew up.

"It's really nice to knead some bread for 20 minutes. It's actually really pleasant," said Sizek, who now makes fig and date bread because those fruits are plentiful near her home. "You get to spend time, maybe listening to a nice podcast, and just focus on the task at hand."

Sizek always sleeps at least seven to eights hours a day, in part because she's read "several super-interesting scientific studies on how sleep helps you retain information and helps you put together information."

"And, like everyone else, when I don't get some sleep, I get grumpy," she said.

When she's awake, Sizek always has something to do. It was like that at Oakwood High School, where Sizek was the valedictorian and a running star, but also worked one summer as a janitor, removing used chewing gum from lockers.

Her schedule was amped up even more at the University of Chicago, where strenuous studies were combined with the numerous volunteer activities in addition to her sports commitments.

"She's so good at compartmentalizing things and getting things done," said Maroons senior runner Elise Wummer. "I don't know how she managed all of that, and I'd be hard-pressed to find someone who works as hard at this school."

Wummer and Hall called Sizek the perfect leader. Despite Sizek's busy schedule, she always made time for the Maroons and willed herself to better performances for the team's sake, they said.

"She was absolutely, completely driven by the opportunity to help her team succeed," said Hall, who, along with associate athletic director Rosalie Resch, nominated Sizek for the award. "It's just a great quality trait in a person, and that's probably what I loved most about her."

The U. of C. has never had an NCAA Man or Woman of the Year Award winner, and Hall said Sizek would be a more-than-worthy first recipient.

And, as Hall predicted, Sizek refused to praise her own merits.

"The whole point of these sorts of awards should be to think about all the other people who are doing these great things every day ... and to look at these great things that you could be involved in," she said. "It's not just me out there."