Nikki Hiltz felt some nerves during the July day leading up to the 1500-meter final at the U.S.A. Track & Field Championships. The top three finishers would qualify for the IAAF World Track and Field Championships—the highest achievement during a non-Olympic year.
It was her girlfriend, Therese Haiss, who is also a training partner on the Mission Athletics Club running group in San Diego, who offered perspective.
“She said, ‘At the end of the day, you just have to be top three. Don’t make it bigger than it is. It’s just another race,’” Hiltz said, during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Friday. “What I’m taking away is that I shouldn’t count myself out, even when I’m not picked to be in the top three. Anything can happen on any given day.”
To say that Hiltz, 24, wasn’t under consideration for that third spot, behind Olympians Shelby Houlihan and Jenny Simpson, isn’t entirely accurate. Hiltz has proven over the course of her rookie year as a pro athlete that she is capable. In the 13 races she’s entered in 2019, she’s won nine of them, setting a 4:03.55 personal best in the 1500 meters while making the world team. Next up is the Fifth Avenue Mile on September 8, in New York, where she will face Simpson again, along with other world championships-bound competitors like Allie Ostrander (3,000-meter steeplechase) and Elinor Purrier (5,000 meters).
Most recently Hiltz brought home the gold medal in the 1500 meters from the Pan-Am Games, her first international competition. She decided to compete there to have a taste of global experience before traveling to Doha, Qatar, where the world championships begin on September 28.
“It was a good stepping stone,” she said. “I had a really awesome time. I wanted to see what it’s like to live in a village with other athletes, like the Olympics. Then the race played perfectly to my strengths—it was slow, with a kick. It was just really cool to wear the U.S.A. jersey for the first time.”
Unpacking the boxes of U.S. gear, getting the opportunity to represent the country twice within the span of a three months, hearing the national anthem on the podium, and standing on the line with athletes she’s grown up watching—it’s all seemed a little surreal to Hiltz.
“When I was a little girl, Jenny Simpson was one of my idols,” she said. “It’s crazy to know I’m now on a [world] team with her…it blows my mind.”
Sure, the training under coach Terrence Mahon and the adaptation to the pro athlete lifestyle have certainly agreed with Hiltz. But what else contributes to her breakthroughs? For one, it’s rare to see her not utterly enjoying whatever it is she’s doing—to watch Hiltz interact with her teammates, race to her potential, and celebrate at the finish lines is often to witness genuine happiness.
“It’s my secret weapon—smiling and laughing and joking, even if I’m racing for a U.S. championship,” Hiltz said. “That’s just how I am and it’s how I’ve succeeded. You don’t have to make it this big, serious thing. Running is supposed to be fun. I love that this is my job and I get paid to do this.”
For the athletes who are competing in Doha, the season is long. Many will go to Europe to compete on the track circuit there, but Hiltz has decided to stay in the U.S. to race the Fifth Avenue Mile instead.
“[Fast] times don’t really give me confidence, but performances do,” she said. “I just want to race people. The Fifth Avenue Mile is an awesome race—I’m going to really go for it and it’ll be a really good springboard. It’s really what I need to be confident going into worlds.”
And perhaps she’ll have another wish fulfilled while she’s there. An avid viewer of the television show “The Bachelor,” Hiltz recently received a social media message that was orchestrated by a friend, from Tyler Cameron, who just starred in the most recent series of the “The Bachelorette.”
— Nikki Hiltz (@Nikki_Hiltz) August 14, 2019
In the video, Cameron, who is a runner in New York (reportedly training for the New York City Marathon in November), congratulated Hiltz on her Pan-Am Games performance.
“I’m a huge ‘Bachelor’ fan, which is embarrassing, but whatever,” she said. “He didn’t even know what he was talking about, but he did say my name. My friends were so jealous. It was just funny.”
If nothing else, it was another dose of laughter to make sure the supply is full for another big month of competition. Hiltz is outlining serious goals for the world championships.
“Being an American 1500-meter runner, I feel like we have this responsibility to have three in the final and I am probably the weakest link,” she said. “I want to be in that final so bad because I know that Jenny and Shelby can potentially medal and I think it’d be really cool to be in that race with them and hug at the finish line and all of that. We’re Team U.S.A. We’re one team.”