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When Nikki Hiltz won the Boston Athletic Association road mile in April, she liked the feeling. A lot.
“It was so fun to win. It’s my first year as a pro and in college I didn’t win a lot,” she said, during a phone interview on Monday with Women’s Running. “It was kind of fun to break the tape and then I just had this confidence. On the next starting line, it was easier to tell myself, ‘I’m in a good place.’”
Then on April 24, she won the U.S. road mile title in 4:30.09—and she’s done almost nothing but win or set personal bests ever since.
Hiltz, who will compete in the first round of the 1500 meters on Thursday at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, has the sixth-fastest time in the field (4:05.56). The top three in the final on Saturday will make the world championships team—her competitors include Jenny Simpson, Olympic bronze medalist; and Shelby Houlihan, who has a personal best of 3:57.34.
“My goal is definitely to be top three and that’s a crazy thing to think about,” Hiltz, 24, said. “But I’m not afraid to say that. It scares me, but it also excites me.”
A year ago, such an objective may have seemed audacious. Hiltz had undergone a surgical procedure in which bone marrow was taken from her hip and injected into her knee, where she had patellar tendonitis and cartilage behind the kneecap. But just more than a month later, she was back competing at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships—and she placed second in the 1500 meters.
From there, she returned to her California roots, joining the Mission Athletics Club in San Diego, under the direction of coach Terrance Mahon. Something—or many things—started clicking soon after that.
“I made so many changes. I moved from Fayettville, Arkansas, to San Diego. I started training with a new coach. I had all new training partners,” Hiltz said. “We do altitude training, which is so different for me. In the weight room, it’s so much more specific and individualized to my weaknesses.”
It’s the lifting Hiltz believes has made the biggest difference in her ability to compete. Focusing on her hip strength allowed her to better activate her quads, she said—a weakness that may have led to her knee problems in college.
“My form changed and feel so much stronger in my running,” Hiltz said. “I’ve had no injuries.”
No setbacks, of course, lead to consistency, which leads to breakthroughs. Hiltz remembers the first time she had such a season—it was her junior year in college and she came out as openly gay.
“I don’t think it was coincidental. I was hiding this part of me and burying it,” she said. “When I decided to be who I am, a weight was lifted. When you’re happy and holistic off the track, it’s going to translate on the track. That was that.”
Hiltz and her girlfriend, Therese Haiss, who is also a pro runner and member of the Mission Athletics training group, have been adamant that they want to set the right example for LBGTQ youth following in their footsteps.
After Hiltz won at the Boston Boost games in June, which is Pride Month, she celebrated with Haiss, while draped in the rainbow flag. Hiltz’s sponsor, Adidas, posted the shot on Instagram, with the caption, “Inspiring the next generation to be proud of who they are starts with showing them how. #LoveUnites.”
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“There’s a quote I read about a year ago that really stuck with me, ‘Be the person you needed when you were younger,’ and for me that means someone being their authentic self while chasing their dream.” @nikkihiltz . Inspiring the next generation to be proud of who they are starts with showing them how. #LoveUnites
Although a flood of support and congratulations ensued, the post also incited hateful comments and trolls. Instead of ignoring them, Hiltz started responding.
“Sometimes it’s scary to show up and it feels dangerous and terrifying to be seen but it is not as scary, dangerous, or terrifying as getting to the end of our lives and thinking: What if I would’ve shown up?” she wrote on Instagram.
The decision to confront homophobia from her platform as a pro athlete is important, Hiltz said.
“It was a coping mechanism for myself, too,” she said. “But it is also to educate people. I don’t think people who supported the [Adidas] post realized how much negativity there was. I wanted to show a liberal bubble of people that there is hate and homophobia going on in the world.”
Her work continues in Iowa this week, where she plans to stick her neck out yet again. Even if that top three finish doesn’t materialize, Hiltz will consider her first year in the sport a success.
“Ultimately I’ll walk away happy if I know that I left it all on the track,” she said. “If I run my heart out and end up fifth, I’ll know that I gave it my everything.”