Nikki Hiltz’s goal was to make the finals of the World Athletics Championships. When they did, in 2019, it should have been a time of pure celebration. Instead they experienced the depression of wondering, “Now what?” They realized that to remain motivated in the sport, racing had to be about more than personal victories. The next year they started the Pride 5K, a virtual race where people can celebrate pride and support queer youth, and that raises funds for The Trevor Project.
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Nikki wants everyone to be able to experience the joy of running that they do. “It’s what originally brought me to the sport and made me fall in love with it,” they recall. “It was just, you know, being a kid, like, ‘I’ll race you from here to that trash can,’ or whatever. It’s just so innocent and pure, and then also so competitive. It kind of recenters me to go back to my inner child. I know it’s a buzzword, but it’s so important to just kind of tap into your inner child. I genuinely feel like we are most ourselves when we’re young, and then the world or whatever else messes us up along the way, and it’s all about trying to get back to that pure, young, child-like self.”
Of course, as a professional, running isn’t all “sunshine and rainbows.” “There is stress and pressure and all that stuff, especially when you’re in a race,” Nikki acknowledges. “But this is something I’ve been working on recently, looking at races as opportunities. I get really excited and sometimes that excitement goes a little bit overboard and turns into nerves and it’s like, ‘Okay, the nerves are good. The excitement is good, but leave the outcome at home.’ You don’t need that; it’s about the opportunity, what could happen and focusing on things that I love.”
It helps that competition is one of the things that Nikki loves. “I’m competitive in whatever I do. If we’re playing a board game, I’m like, ‘I’m going to win or I wanna win,’ and I’m crushed if I don’t. Whatever I’m doing, I wanna be the best at it.” Despite their personal drive to win, competition is the least important aspect of the race that they founded, the Pride 5K. “The Pride 5K is so much about community and just coming together and sharing this experience of running, and no part of that is really competitive. The Pride 5K is technically a race, but the whole point is just to get people to show up and run a 5K to raise money for this incredible organization and help LGBTQ youth feel seen. We’re just going on a run to form community and have these connections. And then my job is like, I want to beat everyone and I’m very competitive.”
Nikki believes that having that separation in their life helps them to be balanced as an athlete and as a person. “As soon as I cross the finish line, I’m all about being friends with my competitors and forming community. I’m all about the community of professional runners. At the end of the day, those are really good relationships and really cherished friends because they’re the only people in the world that understand what I do every day, because they do it too.”
Those friendships have meant that Nikki has never experienced any negative reactions to their advocacy or to coming out as transgender and non-binary from their competitors. “If anything, it’s the opposite,” they say. “All the ignorance and hate that I’ve gotten is from complete, total strangers online, never from the people that matter in my life.”
Besides being in the public eye, as a professional athlete, Nikki faces additional challenges that other transgender people don’t. “Obviously, I’m a huge advocate for representation, and I think seeing yourself in someone else is huge when it comes to believing in yourself, and having the confidence to show up as yourself, and all the good things that come from representation. But sometimes I see trans people on their transition journey, like getting gender-affirming care or starting hormone therapy and things like that, and I feel like my sport is at odds with my identity, because I would love to do those things. But I’m not gonna take testosterone, start hormone therapy until I’ve closed this chapter of my elite running career. I do think that I want top surgery, but that’s probably five to ten weeks of no running. I kind of have to be like, ‘Okay, is that worth it to lose x amount of months of training to be affirmed in my gender more? Is that gonna maybe hurt me more than help me because I’m maybe gonna experience even more hate or push back because of that?’ And so it’s just hard seeing these trans, these non-binary people who are getting these surgeries or hormone therapy. That’s a part of my life that I really want. But I think I have to put that on hold for right now, while I chase this first dream.”
Nikki hopes that other progress will come sooner. They’d like to see a non-binary division in more races. When they ran the New York City Mile, which does offer that category, “It was really cool. I can feel alone a lot of the time in, you know, being the only or the first, and it just made me feel so much less alone.”
Most of all, they want everyone to feel welcome in the running space and to have the opportunity to benefit from it as they have. “Running is my job, but it’s also my safe space, and where I can do the most self reflection or inner work is a solo run. It allows me to feel very at peace and also very seen, and I think that that’s really important. I think running is a place for everyone and I would love to see more people bring that energy and inclusion to the sport.”
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