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In return to Worlds stage, Nikki Hiltz fueled by their kick and their community

Hiltz pulls off late comeback to win 1500m title
Nikki Hiltz pulls ahead of Athing Mu down the stretch to win the women's 1500m national championship at the USATF Outdoor National Championships.

2023 has been Nikki Hiltz’s year. In addition to winning indoor and outdoor U.S. 1500m titles, the 28-year-old track star broke the American record for the mile, finishing in 4:16.35 at the Diamond League meet in Monaco behind a world record run from Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon. “I knew that field was so world class, and if I just put my nose in it, something good was going to come from it,” Hiltz recalled from their home base in Flagstaff, Arizona ahead of the 2023 Track and Field World Championships in Budapest. “Crossing the line and seeing the results come up and just how fast everyone ran, it was literally just the result of trying to compete well. It was a super special moment.”

It’s been a period of both change and consistency for Hiltz, who moved to Flagstaff to train with legendary coach Mike Smith in March 2022 - “How can you not be strong when you live in and train at 7,000 feet?” Hiltz jokes. But the new locale has provided a deep and near instantaneous feeling of community for Hiltz and their partner Emma Gee, a steeplechaser, as well as the couple’s German Shepherd Scout.

“All my training partners, they are more like 5K, 10K people, but I love it. And they’re just good people,” Hiltz said. “Everyone here gets my pronouns right. We’re very supportive of each other as athletes but as young people figuring out life too. It’s just good vibes.”

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It’s also been two years since Hiltz publicly came out as transgender non-binary and began using they/them pronouns, a process they describe as a journey, but one in which they feel increasingly comfortable in their own skin.

“I think as scary and as terrifying as it was to be that vulnerable and open, it’s more terrifying to have not done it and to keep hiding,” Hiltz said. “There have been good and bad moments, but I’m just so thankful for track and field for listening and learning and making a space for me. Because as good as it feels for me to hear those pronouns used, that means so much more to any little trans kid watching. Maybe by me just showing up as myself, I’m making it a little bit easier for the next trans person to come through the sport.”

In accepting public attention of their personal gender identity, Hiltz thinks of a quote: It’s harder to hate something that you know. They feel that their support and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community has come back to them ten-fold. Hiltz refers to that support as “my superpower on the track.”

Ahead of their race at 2023 U.S. Championships, Hiltz spotted a sign in the crowd at Hayward Field emblazoned with the words Nikki Hiltz you are my hero. “I was like, okay, no matter what happens, you’re that person’s hero,” Hiltz said. “That’s such a great reminder…before the gun even goes off, I’ve won. I’m just really proud to be queer.”

The sign gave Hiltz purpose in their last 100 meters, as they used their increasingly dangerous kick to power to the outdoor 1500m title and a spot on the U.S. team at World Championships in Budapest. For the casual track viewer, Hiltz describes a “kick” as “essentially, that last explosive gear” a runner can go to. It’s something they’ve had in their arsenal since high school.

“I’ve always had it,” Hiltz said of that closing gear. “And then, since becoming a pro, I’ve really nurtured it and curated it.”

Hiltz has also continued to nurture and curate their balance between athlete and activist. They stressed that while they compete in the gender they were assigned at birth, that won’t be the same dynamic for every athlete.

“I think sport is a place for everyone, Hiltz said. “And I think we need to be having these conversations. How do we get more people in the door?”

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For them, it’s often taken the form of conversations with people across the sport, from meet directors to commentators, about pronouns and allowing trans runners to compete.

“I think what I can do is just show up as myself and be the best runner I can be, and then help elevate those activists and advocates who are doing the work to make space for trans and non-binary people in running.”

Outside of professional running, Hiltz founded the Pride 5K in 2020 – a virtual group run where people come together to run a 5K and raise money for an organization doing good within the queer community. This coming October, the Pride 5K will be held in five cities across the US: Phoenix, Arizona; Houston, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; San Francisco, California; and New York City. People outside of these cities are encouraged to participate virtually. Pride 5K has donated more than $112,000 to the Trevor Project since 2020; this year, they’re raising money for Point of Pride, a trans-owned and trans-led nonprofit that provides financial support to trans people in need.

To top off this standout season, Hiltz will soon race in the 2023 World Track and Field Championships in Budapest. Although Hiltz made the World team in 2019, the years in between then and now consisted of what they called “more rough races than good ones.” But Hiltz looks at the disappointing performances as opportunities for growth.

“At the end of the day, I still love doing what I’m doing. I just have more perspective.”

As much as Hiltz loves running, they also recognize the value in taking time off - for them, that time off is strictly built into the routine every Sunday, and usually involves playing with their dog Scout, making sourdough bread and going to the farmer’s market.

“You’re not going to get the benefits of your training unless you recover and rest, Hiltz said. “It feels like it helps me from burning out.”

While Hiltz is focused on Budapest right now, they’re looking ahead to Paris in 2024.

“I have national champion and American record holder in my bio, but I would love to add Olympian,” they said.

And though Hiltz has confidence in their ability to make the Olympic team, they’re trying not to put so much pressure on that prospect.

“At the end of the day, if I’m fourth at the Trials, I’m fourth. The people that still love me love me, and I still love myself.”