On March 31, Nikki Hiltz decided it was time to let everybody know who they are. It was National Transgender Day of Visibility and they had just finished a conversation with a runner who had used the 2020 Pride 5K that Hiltz had organized as an occasion to come out.
“It was nothing specific, but me as a closeted person talking to someone about their coming out experience—the joy she felt from coming out and living as who she really was—it was the extra nudge I needed,” Hiltz said. “I thought, ‘I’m ready for that, too.’ I knew this about myself and had already told the people in my life who love and care about me, and they accepted it.”
That support gave Hiltz the confidence to write the Instagram post that set off a barrage of podcast and media interview requests, as well as a few writing opportunities. And Hiltz also changed their pronouns from she/her to they/them.
“Hi I’m Nikki and I’m transgender,” they posted. “That means I don’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. The word I use currently to describe my gender is non-binary.”
They had come out before, in 2017 as a senior at the University of Arkansas where Hiltz, now 26, noticed that living authentically as an openly gay person actually led to better performances. It wasn’t until then that Hiltz could really fathom a professional running career. And with an Adidas sponsorship and San Diego home base, they have lit up the 1500 meters, qualifying for the 2019 world championships and making it to the final round with a personal best of 4:01.52.
This year the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials are on the line, beginning on June 18, in Eugene, Oregon, and Hiltz’s primary goal is to place in the top three in the women’s 1500 meters to make the Tokyo Games. But the success of their rookie year has them thinking beyond the performance at Hayward Field and straight to what they need to do to make the final round at the Olympics.
“I have to start thinking about the next level,” Hiltz said. “Yes, the Trials are important, but I also gain confidence in how I do compete when I’m in that U.S.A. jersey. I think I’m in PR shape and I think I can break four [minutes, in the 1500 meters], but I also know there are six or seven or maybe 12 girls who can do that right now in the U.S. I’m excited to see what I can pull out of myself.”
They’ll race every two weeks between now and the Trials. In their opener two weeks ago, Hiltz placed fifth in 4:05.84 at the U.S.A. Track & Field Grand Prix. Next up, Hiltz competes on Sunday at the Golden Games at Mt. Sac, which will be broadcast on NBC.
Now coached by Mac Fleet, who won two NCAA 1500-meter championships while competing for the University of Oregon, Hiltz has other objectives for the 2021 season, aside from making the Games: break two minutes in the 800 meters and break four minutes in the 1500 meters. They only have two seconds to lose—their current best in the 800 meters is 2:01.37. The new program has allowed Hiltz more freedom and support to pursue the projects that fulfill them outside of training, together with Sam Murphy, a Canadian 800-meter runner, who is also Fleet’s wife and Hiltz’s best friend and training partner.
“I really love being coached by a young, excited coach—it’s a good dynamic,” Hiltz said. “They have also helped me put on the Pride 5K. They understand how important it is for me to have this other outlet and for me to be balanced.”
Although the overwhelming sentiment since making their transgender, non-binary identity known has been positive, Hiltz has also experienced pushback and hateful comments. They don’t go looking for it, but sometimes stumble across the trolls who tag them in the vitriol.
“So many people have had an opinion about my gender identity and me coming out. That’s the easiest thing to have—an opinion. It’s the opposite of empathy,” Hiltz said. “You’re not putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Any time you can approach anything with more empathy, the better space sport and all environments can be.”
Hiltz recognizes the platform they have to help younger transgender people, who are the primary target of legislation sweeping across 33 states, with more than 100 bills curbing rights to gender-affirming treatment and participation in youth sports consistent with their gender identities. LGBTQ children already have high rates of depression and suicide and advocates say that these laws will do further harm to mental health.
“As an LGBTQ person, I’ve experienced stress throughout my life while navigating a world that’s not accepting,” Hiltz said. “If you’re just a person who wants to support LGBTQ kids in crisis, sign up. The second part is that I love and cherish the community that this race has created around the world…it’s so special. If you want to be part of a loving, caring community, that’s another reason to sign up.”
As the debate about transgender athletes competing in sports rages on, Hiltz would like more people to educate themselves on the current science, the NCAA and elite-level policies for transgender competitors, and what Hiltz’s own personal circumstances are.
“I’m not planning on taking testosterone or having gender-affirming surgery. I’m just showing up as myself. I want people to know what I’ve known my whole life,” they said. “But I never want my experience to be weaponized against other trans people. Everyone deserves a choice. Trans people deserve to show up as themselves in all spaces, including sports. There’s a lot of ignorance going around and this is maybe where I can help educate people.”
In the meantime, Hiltz is fully focused on what they need to do to leave the 2021 track season with a smile. In the end it has little to do with podiums and personal records.
“If I walked away from this season with more races that I was excited to be in and happy to be in than nervous and stressed out about—if I can have fun out there and do my best, it’s going to be a good season,” Hiltz said. “There have been seasons where I’m like, ‘Wow, that was really stressful,’ and I wasn’t really happy a lot of the time. What I’ve learned is that I actually really love this and I am excited about it.”