Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
On Monday, Nia Akins released her first single on all music streaming platforms.
Unless you’ve spent time with her, chances are you didn’t know that Akins was a singer-songwriter in the making—even if you’ve followed her journey from the University of Pennsylvania as a two-time NCAA runner-up in the 800 meters with a 2:00.17 PR all the way to Seattle as a professional training with the Brooks Beasts. Though her musical side has stayed mostly out of the spotlight, this isn’t the first time Akins has published her music. It’s just the first time without using a pseudonym.
The single, titled “Smoke,” has special meaning. Akins wrote the indie style anthem last summer leading up to and during the Olympic Track Team Trials. Dealing with the oppressive record-setting heat, the changing schedules, and the intense competition, the 23-year-old felt a sense of doubt that she had to overcome as she made it to the finals in the 800 meters. “I call them little clouds of fear and doubt,” she says.
In the song those clouds form into smoke, something that she wished away but still lingered. Then there’s a telling, yet almost hidden “Oh well,” that leads into the chorus.
“The ‘oh well’ is so important to me because it’s me feeling like, ‘whatever, just go for it anyway,’” she says.
From there, the smoky tone of the intro makes way for the upbeat chorus where Akins boldly claims, “No smoke, no fire.” It transforms into the kind of pump-up song you’ll want to play loudly right before your next race, your next job interview, or any time you’re looking to step out of the lingering cloud of doubt.
“You don’t really get any fire from things being easy,” she says. It’s a common theme in training for her, understanding that the workouts are going to be hard, but it will be worth it in the end. “Life is just hard. You have to push past things and get through stuff.”
Akins is still relatively new to songwriting, really diving into it during the pandemic. Missing the serotonin boost she got from racing, she poured her effort into learning how to play the guitar better and filling the void of canceled races.
You can hear Akins’ indie folk and Christian acoustic influences in “Smoke.” The shape of the song is very reminiscent of “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine, one of her favorite artists.
It’s also the music she listens to before her own racing, along with Lorde, Milky Chance, and a surprising one that only highlights Akins is not one to be pinned down—Christmas trap music. “It’s just really hard to get intimidated or be nervous when I’m listening to something like that,” she says, laughing. “It’ll just be ‘Jingle Bells’ and then all of a sudden the beat will drop and then it’s this dramatic trap song. That’s my favorite pre-race thing.”
Music has been a space where Akins has been able to find, and now project, her voice. “Being a woman and then on top of that, being a black female, sometimes other people will speak for you or assume certain things about you. I feel like that’s probably the topic that I write about most, assumptions, or feeling like I’m a different person than what’s being perceived,” she says.
One assumption she’s trying to dispel is that athletes are ultra-resilient. “I feel like there’s not really space for me to talk about things that were challenging me. I feel like music is the way that I can release that and talk about it.”
She continues to work hard at training her ear with the same consistency that she’d tackle track practice. Even in going back and forth from altitude camp to track meets, her guitar has become her traveling companion, giving fodder to the music she is now working with a producer on.
“The goal is to put out a little EP—seven songs by the end of the year,” says Akins. Releasing the songs in her own name, she’s pushing away the smoke and saying, “oh well.”