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For Nikki Hiltz, the past two years have been defined by change: Last spring, they came out as transgender, nonbinary, and on Sunday they announced they’re moving to Flagstaff to train under a new coach, Mike Smith, alongside new teammates, Rachel Schneider and Elly Henes.
Although Hiltz has handled the changes gracefully, they’ve said it’s all been deceptively challenging and has probably weighed on them more than they realize. With the decision to join a new training group behind them, Hiltz is hoping their life is approaching a steadiness it hasn’t seen in a while—and that that steadiness will allow them to have a breakout season on the track.
Like many professional distance runners, Hiltz traveled to Flagstaff to train for a few months. On one of their first days in town, they ran a workout with Schneider and Henes. “It was super fun and chill, and we all just vibed so well together,” Hiltz says. “I ended up running and working out with them for the rest of my time there.”
Smith has a record of making his athletes aerobically strong; he’s coached the Northern Arizona University men to five cross-country national championships in the last six years and coached Schneider, who is also his wife, to her first Olympic team last summer. Aerobic strength has traditionally been a weakness for Hiltz.
“I was drawn to the way [Smith] wanted to get to know me as a person before we even talked about training,” Hiltz says. “He’s also a super cool and confident dude, and I think part of me is hoping that confidence and swag can rub off on me.”
Hiltz has changed their training group but not picked up a new sponsorship deal, which means they can continue to wear whatever they want. Last weekend at the U.S. Championships in Spokane, Washington, Hiltz wore a custom singlet that featured the transgender flag and the words “Protect Trans Kids.”
A nonbinary artist Hiltz found on Instagram created the design and Hiltz screenprinted the singlet. “I was really happy to wear something I’m proud of,” Hiltz says. “It felt like college again, like wearing Arkansas or Oregon. I’m proud to be a part of this, and this is the team I’m representing.”
Hiltz made it clear that the team they’re representing is the transgender community, many of whom have recently found themselves increasingly vulnerable at the hands of various political movements across the country that aim to restrict their rights. The same week as the indoor championships, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate the parents of transgender children and prosecute them for committing “child abuse.”
“I’ll be running the USATF indoor national championships this weekend for all the trans youth in Texas. Y’all are so loved,” Hiltz posted to Instagram ahead of the race. Hiltz also said they’ll continue to wear the custom singlet until they become sponsored again.
The case in Texas has been the most popular in the news, but similar situations exist in states across the country: Lawmakers in both Alabama and Idaho are also currently attempting to make it a crime to provide gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth.
Hiltz has posted many times about queer visibility and the political effort to defend and increase transgender rights, and being a vocal advocate for trans rights wasn’t exactly voluntary for Hiltz—it’s something they feel a responsibility to do and have grown into. Their social media platform has become so large, on some level, because they’re such a fast runner: In 2019, Hiltz won the Pan American Games and also qualified for a World Championships final in the 1500. Since then, they’ve maintained a perfect record of qualifying for a U.S. final every season.
Hiltz had a visceral realization of the support they have when they were making the custom singlet for this indoor season: “I was in the garage of this guy who’s a local runner here in San Diego, and I had Mac and Sam [their former coach and training partner] helping me measure everything and helping me screenprint the uniform,” Hiltz says. “It felt symbolic. I have such an incredible community around me. They totally get it.”
Surrounding themself with the right people is important, and they believe their new training group in Flagstaff will be similarly supportive. Hiltz understands the privilege of safety and support they’ve had living in California compared to trans people who live elsewhere. “It makes me feel kind of guilty,” Hiltz says. “I want this for every trans kid.”
Wearing the custom singlet is mostly a symbolic gesture, but some of Hiltz’s other projects have had more tangible effects: Through the Pride 5K, a virtual race they founded, they raised more than $40,000 in 2021 to support the Trevor Project, which is an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization.
But Hiltz’s work doesn’t come without consequence. “My advocacy stuff has gotten in the way of racing before,” Hiltz says. “Last spring was a lot, and I think my performances struggled.”
When Hiltz came out as gay in 2017, their performances immediately soared. They went from a “mediocre college runner,” in their words, to an athlete who was able to negotiate for a competitive professional contract and routinely contend for U.S. titles. It was like a weight was taken off their back.
Hiltz thought that their more recent coming out would have a similar effect, but that hasn’t quite been the case. It’s true that they feel freer and more authentic, but being public about gender nonconformity comes with a new set of challenges.
Before races, officials have said things like, “Ladies, get on the line”; announcers have also misgendered Hiltz when reading the names of the athletes in the field. While Hiltz tends to handle these instances with grace and flexibility, that’s not to say there isn’t some kind of psychological effect. Their focus can lapse, or feelings of doubt can more easily invade their mind right before the race begins.
“It’s definitely something that can hinder my performance, but I try to think of it as part of the beauty of being me,” Hiltz says. Remembering their broader significance is something from which they can derive strength. “It’d be so cool to watch a sporting event where there’s a nonbinary person getting gender affirmed, and I try to remember how empowering that would’ve been for me and really channel that to my advantage.”
Hiltz is often on the receiving end of online attacks. People who clearly don’t know anything about Hiltz have opportunistically issued insults, sometimes so obviously misinformed that they’re humorous: “You’re a man, and you’ll always be a man.” (Hiltz previously identified as a woman and has never undergone any sort of gender-affirming medical procedure or hormone treatment.) Hiltz says, “Some of the messages you just have to laugh at.”
Hiltz is grateful for the position they’re in despite the stresses that sometimes accompany it. “No other athlete in the field has to deal with that,” they say. “But no one else on that track has the wave of support and people that I’m doing this for. It’s like a superpower, a leg up I have on everybody else in the field.”
They have an entire folder on their phone of screenshots of nice messages they receive and look at when the trolls come after them. The DMs are usually expressions of gratitude for all the work Hiltz has done, but in some cases people have even thanked Hiltz for empowering them to come out themselves. Hiltz shared one striking example: two sisters who separately came out to each other while running the Pride 5K together. The kind messages, Hiltz says, remind them, “This is why you’re doing this. This is why it’s important.”
As for the rest of the year, Hiltz wants to qualify for the world championships in Eugene, Oregon, at the end of July, the first time the worlds will be held on American soil. “Eugene is where my career kind of started,” Hiltz says, referencing their first two years of college at the University of Oregon before they transferred to Arkansas.
The last time Hiltz qualified for worlds, they finished fifth at the U.S. Championships indoors—just like this year. Now, maybe more than ever, they believe they’re right on track.