'I just love to run': Meet Amina Maatoug: Duke cross country's speedy, smiley Dutch superstar

Amina Maatoug, who finished fifth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in track, is Duke's marquee returner in 2023.
Amina Maatoug, who finished fifth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in track, is Duke's marquee returner in 2023.

Amina Maatoug — Duke’s best female distance runner — is just happy to be here.

A year ago, the Blue Devil running family welcomed Maatoug to Durham all the way from Leiden, Netherlands. Although new to Duke and the United States, she came in at anything but a rookie stage. The newest addition to the Blue Devil squad was already a national champion, carrying a Netherlands national U20 cross country title, which she earned in 2021, along with a slew of other accolades to her name. By coming to Duke to run, Maatoug was sticking with what she’s known since she was six years old — simply on a different turf.

That experience was evident from the start. At her very first meet with the Blue Devils, the 2022 Virginia Invitational, Maatoug took gold with a 16:57.3 5k. The meet’s runner-up, a sophomore from the host team, didn’t clear the finish line until more than 13 seconds after Maatoug had staked her first-place claim.

Now — five broken records later — she takes off on a second season of cross country, looking to build on the foundation she set over the course of the last year. Her mindset for this? 

“I'll just see what I can do,” Maatoug told The Chronicle.

Such was the attitude Maatoug carried when she first came to Duke. And in her three seasons as a sophomore she saw that she could break the program record in the 3000m, 5000m, 1500m, distance medley relay and the mile. She saw herself win fourth in the ACC Cross Country Championship, sixth in the region and 28th in the nation. She took bronze for the 800m at the ACC Indoor Track and Field Championship and seventh in the mile at the national final. In the outdoor track and field national finals, she ran the 5000m race fast enough to snag fifth place.

In other words, she saw success. Now, she’s looking to take her running further.

Running instinct

This is only fair, given how far running has taken Maatoug. Her gratitude for the sport is part of why she’s able to maintain such powerful optimism through difficult practices and even more challenging competitions. She knows the value of the race.

“I've had so many connections and I've met so many people through this sport … And I've had so many great opportunities,” Maatoug said. “If it weren’t for running, I definitely wouldn't be at Duke.”

Track, indeed, is where Maatoug found inspiration to move to Durham. She grew up racing with a club team, typical for competitive athletes in the Netherlands, where she was surrounded by runners young and old who shared a passion for speed. There, she met other young women who found athletic scholarship opportunities that took them to schools all over the United States. Following that path seemed like a no-brainer for Maatoug, who sees American education as an opportunity to learn about another nation, immerse herself in academics and race at a new level of competition.

“It's awesome that my sport can bring me to a different continent and give me this opportunity to study here and meet all these amazing people and have some great opportunities,” she said.

Before being a Blue Devil, Maatoug attended a prestigious university in the Netherlands while also running for the local club. She chose Duke for its rigorous offerings in both academics and sport, and has found that she’s perfectly capable of being a fully committed student and successful athlete at the same time.

“I'm this person, Amina,” she said. “Part of me is a student and part of me is a runner.”

Good instincts

Maatoug has the rather helpful advantage of seeing her grueling Division-I sport as a “fun activity.” No, six kilometers of a hilly dirt path in August North Carolina heat is not a glorified form of torture to this unique athlete — it’s “fun.”

It doesn’t seem that Maatoug is completely crazy, though. She has simply gotten really good at a strategy she calls “gaslighting yourself into thinking positive things,” which apparently flaunts impressive success rates. This so-called “gaslighting” allows the Dutch runner to push her body to its physical limits uninhibited by doubt or fear, some of the toughest foes a runner can face in a race.

“Whenever it gets hard, you're just telling yourself positive stuff,” Maatoug said. “You can limit yourself a lot. But if you’re trying to stay positive mentally, your body will just do what it can do.”

Much of that positive mentality comes from her attitude toward other people. With competitors, Maatoug can convince herself that she’s not alone in her exhaustion, and that others are having a harder time on the course, which maintains motivation to keep her legs moving. If everyone else is struggling more than she is, a victory has to be imminent.

Among teammates, Maatoug knows that her attitude can affect something larger than herself. She sees cross country as a team sport — after all, every Blue Devil lines up together, competing for points that determine a collective race result. Naturally, then, atmosphere and mentality are huge. 

“The positive energy affects everyone … we have some great team spirit and positivity,” she said. “We always cheer each other on. And that's part of us all getting better, which is awesome.”

Her stubborn optimism prevails even when the cross country route gets muddy or the track gets tough. It’s a product of the “gaslighting” technique. With that strategy always in her pocket, even racing against the toughest competition at the highest level in the nation can’t get her down.

“I just want to race my best and beat everyone I can and then see how well I do,” she said.

Competitive instinct

She might have an eternally positive outlook, but Maatoug is undoubtedly a competitor.

“I’m definitely a competitive person,” she said. “You kind of have to be.”

By 2019, Maatoug had been a Dutch U18 national champion in the 800m three times. In 2021, she proved herself the fastest female cross country runner under the age of 20 in the Netherlands. Then she shifted stages to the NCAA and began her campaign to conquer a new nation.

That’s kind of the long-term goal for Maatoug: Conquering nations, that is. She plans to keep running after college and hopes to represent the Netherlands on an international level, whether in the Olympics or in the European or World Championships.

“I definitely want to run my entire life because it's just so fun to do,” she said.

For now, the focus is on the American collegiate scene. Here, Duke has a sizable advantage, as the distance running squad knows exactly how good it needs to get to compete with the nation’s best. Why? Because the top runners in the country are right next door.

For two years now, N.C. State has led the NCAA in women’s cross country. At the helm of the Wolfpack is senior Katelyn Tuohy, who took the national title last year with a lightning-quick time of 19:27.7 in the 6k, more than 30 seconds speedier than Maatoug in that race. Tuohy, however, finished her freshman year 24th in the nation — far from first — so she serves as an inspiring example to Maatoug of how much improvement a runner can build after her first year competing in the ACC. On top of that, racing Tuohy all through the regular season, a product of proximity, means Maatoug always has to bring her “A-game.”

She’s never beaten Tuohy. But with cross country, the ceiling might be anywhere, especially for a runner like Maatoug, who improved markedly in just one year with Duke. Surpassing Tuohy is certainly not out of the question, and Maatoug knows that.

“I mean, everyone’s beatable,” she said.

Back in Leiden, Maatoug first started running because she wanted to keep up with her family. When she was little, her dad and older sister, who were training for a local race, would let her follow their runs on her bicycle. Maatoug was too young at the time to join them on foot, though she desperately wanted to.

“I would always be jealous,” she said.

By age six, however, Maatoug had joined the local running club. That desire to be fast enough to keep up with the older members of her family turned into a passion. Then, the instinct to keep up with everyone else turned into an instinct to make them try to keep up with her.

That proclivity has never gone away — it’s only gotten stronger. The speedy Blue Devil has developed a deep appreciation for the sport that keeps carrying her far: From one country to the next, one championship to another.

Because for Maatoug, it’s plain and simple: “I just love to run.”

Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports Managing Editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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