After her last high school track season and summertime competitions were upended by a viral disease, a video of Ziyah Holman ’20 speeding past multiple other athletes from far behind to win a 4×400-meter relay for her new school, the University of Michigan, went viral online.
Holman gained attention throughout the sports world last month following remarkable performances at her first collegiate track meet, including that dominant 400-meter anchor leg, which she ran in 51.79 seconds, a time comparable to those of some Olympic athletes. As celebrities and sports commentators alike praised her perseverance on social media and TV, Holman’s former teammates and coaches at GDS have watched her success with excitement and pride.
Senior Ruby Kaplan learned about Holman’s breakout performances at the Simmons-Harvey Invitational on Instagram, where Holman has cultivated a following of over 35 thousand people. She always knew Holman could achieve big wins at small D.C.-area high school meets, but to see her do it in a Division I college race as a freshman was “wild.”
GDS track sprinting coach William Miezan watched Holman’s races live with his wife in their living room. His heart was pounding as she stepped onto Michigan’s indoor track for the 4×400. She had already set a record for Michigan freshman in the 600 meters (with a time of 1:29.27) earlier in the day, but Miezan was waiting to see how she’d do running her signature distance.
From the moment Holman grabbed the baton, seeking to make up for a sizable deficit left by her three Michigan teammates, Miezan recognized “that’s the Ziyah that I know.”
She immediately began closing the gap, passing the athelete in front of her right before finishing the first of two laps. “By then, I’m screaming,” Miezan told the Bit. “I mean, I thought my neighbors were gonna call the cops on me. My whole house is screaming.”
Anthony Belber, GDS’ head track and field coach, who also watched the race from home, said in an interview with the local news channel ABC7 that he even heard Holman’s college coach yell at her to slow down. “He was worried that she was not pacing herself well,” Belber said, “that she was going too fast on that first lap and was going to burn out.” She did not.
When Holman rounded the curve and entered the final straightaway neck and neck with her final competitor, Miezan knew she’d be able to do it. “I’ve seen that over and over and over and over,” he said. “That was just a beautiful race.”
“For her to run that now,” at the beginning of her winter season on a 200-meter indoor track, was “unbelievable,” said Miezan, who once competed in the Olympics as a sprinter for Côte d’Ivoire. Holman’s split was nearly as fast as her unofficial split running the third leg of an under-20 world record–setting 4×400 for Team USA at the 2019 Pan American Under-20 Athletics Championships in Costa Rica.
Miezan texted his former protégé right after her victory to congratulate her and express his pride. The next week, he called to remind her to remain humble and keep working as hard as ever even after having “gotten the recognition that you deserve.”
Miezan said he guided Holman’s training throughout last spring and into June, even as the coronavirus pandemic prevented her from participating in any outdoor meets. Their goal was no less ambitious than making it to the Olympics.
When the Olympics were canceled for 2020, Miezan advised Holman to persist with her training to prepare for college.
Holman’s breakout performance in the collegiate 4×400 reminded Ruby Kaplan of the high school relays they would run together. According to Kaplan, with Holman’s speed and her calm presence on the track team, her teammates’ mentality was “Just don’t fall, get it to Ziyah and we’ll be fine.”
Holman now seems poised for further success barring a fall. “She can only get better,” Miezan said. “All she has to do now is just stay healthy.”
The Tokyo Olympics are officially scheduled to happen this summer, and Miezan said Holman is “absolutely capable” of representing the U.S. at that highest level. “How many girls in this country right now can split a 51 in the four by four? There are not too many.”
GDS’ Hopper Happenings newsletter on Jan. 27 featured a photo of Holman in her blue-and-yellow Michigan uniform with the caption “Never. Give. Up.”
Yet amid a blitz of media appearances in recent weeks, Holman—whom The Augur Bit profiled in the fall of 2019, before she garnered widespread acclaim—is on to bigger and better things.
Her communications representative at Michigan, to whom she referred the Bit after being contacted via text, wrote in an email that “due to Ziyah’s busy schedule we won’t be able to do an interview.” In place of a chance to speak with the GDS graduate turned Michigan track star, he offered a 25-minute video that he described as a “recording of a recent media availability with Ziyah, which lasts more than half an hour.”
When asked in that recorded interview what the most meaningful shout-out had been, Holman said it came from Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder and husband of tennis superstar Serena Williams. Holman read an Instagram direct message from Ohanian aloud: “Keep up the great work. We’ll be cheering for you at the Olympics.”
Lower school PE teachers, including Miezan, have talked about Holman with their classes. Among Miezan’s kindergarten students are Zuri and Zynn Jones, Holman’s half-sisters. Miezan said they react with incredulous amazement when told of their older sister’s accomplishments. “I told them that they’re next on the line,” he said.
Miezan acknowledged that the GDS sprinting program’s roster currently finds itself in a lull. He suspects it’s a result of the pandemic and of “the fact that every school goes through that” at some point. But he is hopeful participation will rebound, especially since “now there are so many girls who want to be part of this program” after seeing Holman’s ascent.
Miezan said Holman’s achievements are a “testimony to what the school has done, because GDS put everything in place for us to be successful.” As the rush of media attention came, he left Belber, the head coach, to handle interviews. (“I hate the spotlight,” Miezan explained.)
“All through high school,” Belber told ABC7, “Ziyah had a bit of a chip on her shoulder—track and field athletes often do. We get overlooked compared to football and basketball and the other big sports, so Ziyah always wanted to prove herself in that regard.”
Perhaps she didn’t feel she had to speak with her high school’s newspaper because she doesn’t have to prove herself to us.
Ethan Wolin ’23