It wasn’t until she came out to her family in 2016 that Nikki Hiltz, now 25, started running at the level she knew she could. As a junior at the University of Arkansas at the time, she entered her senior year without any heavy secrets left to slow her down.

“When I decided to be who I am, a weight was lifted. I don’t think my breakthrough season was coincidental—I was holding back this part of me, hiding it and burying it,” she says. “When you’re happy and holistic off the track, it’s going to
translate on the track. That was that.”

As a result, she says, she ended that college career not the injured, under-performing athlete she once was, but the runner-up in the 1500 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships, poised to sign a pro contract with Adidas and move to San Diego with her girlfriend, Therese Haiss, where they train with the Mission Athletics Club, under famed middle-distance coach Terrence Mahon.

The moment Hiltz felt free to lead an authentic life, she soared and fans have come to know a genuinely happy athlete, as quick with a big smile and a disarming joke as she is with her kick down the straightaway in a championship race.

Throughout her rookie pro year, her times across all distances improved and her racing tactics sharpened. When she crossed the line first in the mile at the Boston Boost Games, a rainbow pride flag was draped over her shoulders. Adidas splashed a photo of the moment of victory to 25 million followers on its Instagram page and Hiltz welcomed the kind of platform that might reach kids going through similar doubts and fears as she did while grappling with her identity in her
younger days.

And while that moment came to illustrate her path as athlete and advocate, it didn’t come without another teachable moment—that, of course, not everybody will show support for the LGBTQ population. It was then that Hiltz made a conscious decision to draw attention to the homophobia, too.

“The floodgates were open to hateful comments. I responded to a lot of them with funny comments because it made me feel better, but also to educate—as soon as I started putting people on blast, it showed my liberal bubble of friends that there is still is homophobia going on in the world,” Hiltz says. “Part of me didn’t want to give these people an ounce of my energy, but it also open floodgates for positive messages.”

As the season rolled on, Hiltz only picked up steam. She went into the 2019 U.S. outdoor championships unsure how she’d stack up against a field of veterans and contenders. In the last 100 meters of the 1500-meter final, a switch seemed to go off and Hiltz found a final gear to nab a third-place finish behind Shelby Houlihan and Jenny Simpson. In that effort, she qualified for her first world championships team in 4:03.55.

“When I was a little girl, Jenny Simpson was one of my idols,” Hiltz says. “It’s crazy to be on a [world] team with her…it blows my mind.”

Her goal at the world championships in Doha was to make the final round and it took another personal best to make it happen, clocking 4:01.52 in the semi-finals. In the her final competition of the season, she placed 12th in the world during a shockingly fast race in which Houlihan set an American record (3:54.99). The experience for Hiltz against the world’s best will no doubt serve her well in 2020, when all eyes are on making the Tokyo Games. Her chance to make the Olympics is solid, but it’s Hiltz’s commitment to staying true to herself from now on that will lead her to the happiest finish lines.

“It’s my secret weapon—smiling and laughing and joking,” she says. “That’s just how I am and it’s how I’ve succeeded.”

This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.