Why Nikki Hiltz is one of Team USA's most promising stars on and off the track.
The sun beat down on the Blue Oval at Drake Stadium and the crowd’s roar grew louder as Shelby Houlihan and Jenny Simpson battled for first place in the final 100-meter stretch of the women’s 1500 meters at the USA Track and Field Championship in Des Moines, I.A. While Simpson tried to rev up a kick and overtake Houlihan, a boxed-in Nikki Hiltz ramped up hers as well. With 300 meters to go, she caught wind of the sound of her family and friends cheering her on from their seats in the metal bleachers near the starting line.
There was more than just a win on the line. A top three finish meant she would qualify for the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Her self-described “fan section” included her parents, Tom and Liz, her girlfriend Therese Haiss and five friends. As they screamed, “Go Nikki,” she knew at that moment she would make the team for worlds.
“I felt this surge of energy and I wanted to do it for more than just myself and for all those people there supporting me,” she says. “I think with 100 meters to go I told myself ‘give it everything you have.’”
She did just that and finished third behind Houlihan and Simpson in 4:03.55 to set a personal best and claim the final spot for Doha, which starts Sept. 27. During her first year as a professional runner, the momentum for Hiltz, 24, is quickly building in a season that has included personal best after personal best in the 1,500 meter and mile disciplines. Her performances and character on and off the track have made her one of U.S. track and field’s most visible stars ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
A trip to the Summer Games would be “a childhood dream coming true” for her. It was only three years ago when Hiltz realized on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe that her goal might be slipping away.
“In the summer of 2016, when I was watching the trials, I had just not made it out of regionals [at the NCAA championships with Arkansas] and I was like ‘This sucks,’” Hiltz says. “I was not even close to running those times by the pros. It was just a moment in my career where I was like ‘Wait, you may never make the Olympic trials.’”
During that same vacation, Hiltz had another life-changing moment when she came out to her parents and shared she was dating Haiss, her then-Arkansas teammate.
As high school seniors, Hiltz from Santa Cruz, Calif. and Haiss of Solon, Ohio met at the Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle, Wash. and quickly hit it off. They both had already committed to running track at the University of Oregon and decided to be roommates. Hiltz redshirted during their freshman year (2013-14) due to a foot injury, and Haiss transferred to the University of Arkansas at its conclusion. However, rising tuition costs and cuts to Hiltz's partial scholarship led to her realizing after the 2014-15 season that her dream of running at Oregon in the steps of running legends like Steve Prefontaine was no longer an option.
After seeing Haiss flourish at Arkansas, Hiltz joined her there, and the two later started dating in January 2016. They both came out to their parents on the same day in June 2016. Hiltz told her parents while on vacation in Lake Tahoe, and Haiss called her parents from Fayetteville, Ark., where she was taking summer classes.
It marked a turning point in Hiltz’s career. The 2017 outdoor season was a breakout year, and she looked like the promising star that many hoped to see when she was a standout at Aptos High School in California. She finished that season as the SEC outdoor champion in the 1,500 meter and the NCAA outdoor runner-up in the same event.
“I think I was running poorly because I was dealing with this secret inside,” Hiltz says. “As soon as I came out, I think that’s when my collegiate career kind of exploded and had a breakthrough.”
That breakthrough has extended into Hiltz’s first year as a professional runner. She signed a contract to represent Adidas and now lives with Haiss in San Diego, where they both train with The Mission Athletics Club under coach Terrence Mahon. Since turning pro in July 2018, Hiltz has lowered her personal bests to 2:01.37 in the 800 meters and 4:03.55 in the 1,500 meters. She won gold in the women’s 1500 meters at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, which was also her first international competition for Team USA.
Hiltz’s success has not only increased her notability in the running world but also within the LBGTQ community. Following her win in a road mile at the Adidas Boost Boston Game in June, the sportswear company’s director of global sports marketing Spencer Nel draped a rainbow flag around her shoulders. Adidas posted a photo of the moment on Instagram account with the caption, “Inspiring the next generation to be proud starts with showing them how.”
The picture has garnered more than 150,000 likes. Hiltz immediately felt excited over the support showed by her sponsor. However, it also led to a wave of negative comments.
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“There’s a quote I read about a year ago that really stuck with me, ‘Be the person you needed when you were younger,’ and for me that means someone being their authentic self while chasing their dream.” @nikkihiltz . Inspiring the next generation to be proud of who they are starts with showing them how. #LoveUnites
“Initially I was really happy [over the post] and then all these comments started flying in and it was like ‘Oh no. Maybe this is a bad idea,” she says. “It used to get me down but now I’m so confident that it just makes me laugh…It was kind of scary at first. Everything they were saying was all of my insecurities about why I didn’t want to come out of the closet in the first place. It’s definitely motivating me. It just makes me want to run faster for some reason. I want to reach more people.”
As her status has increased, Hiltz has unsurprisingly become labeled as “the gay runner” and embraces it. When asked if she feels a responsibility to be outspoken for her community, she says she views her position as an opportunity to help people, which is her favorite part about being a professional athlete.
That position is growing and can continue to if she races well at Doha.
“I feel like all of a sudden I went from competing on a national stage to figuring out how I’m going to compete on the global stage,” she says.
In an Instagram post on Saturday, Hiltz joked how USATF asked its athletes to "please try and keep a low profile" in Doha, yet she arrived at Los Angeles International Airport "looking like a mega tourist."
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@usatf: please try and keep a low profile Me: 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 ——————————————— Looking like a mega US tourist as I head off to Doha for the World Championships! I guess I’m just so dang excited to represent my country on the big stage. This all still feels like a crazy dream, and just in case it is.. whoever’s in charge, pls don’t wake me! #Doha2019
While Hiltz is not planning on hiding her pride in representing her country, she's also planning to remain true to herself. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, but the 24-year-old says she isn't concerned about differences in the country's politics. Lord Sebastian Coe, the President of the International Association of Athletics Federation (track and field's world governing body) has also said that he is "not in the mood as a federation president ever to gag the voices or the instincts of athletes" if anyone chooses to protest at the world championships.
"I'm just going to focus on running. If I do really well and Therese is at the finish line, I'm not going to not hug her or kiss her because of their rules," she says. "I don't want to have preconceived ideas of a place before I go there. Yes, maybe there are things I don't agree with but I don't want to be dreading this experience. This has been a dream of mine."
Doha will be Hiltz’s first world championships and Mahon, who is considered one of the best middle- and long-distance running coaches in the U.S., is working to prepare her for what to expect. His initial goal for her first professional season was only to see better results than last years. In the fall, he started working with Hiltz on sprint drills and building up her workload in the weight room. In college, she had mostly done circuit and endurance training and lacked experience with other exercises like dead lifts or back slots. Mahon wanted to pair these techniques with her natural talent to increase her speed. Hiltz’s training schedule also includes running seven days a week and alternating between sprint drills and tempo runs. Now, she deadlifts 150 pounds and the benefits have shown in her results.
Mahon's goal for Hiltz at Doha is to learn how to juggle what he calls “logistical challenges” in competition that include nutrition, time zones and jet lag.
“The ultimate goal would be to see if she can make the final,” he says. “She’s pretty good at not putting too much pressure on herself. She knows this is all new. We’re kind of like in the free zone here. Anything she does here is good experience.
“But make no mistake she’s fiercely competitive. Even though she’s happy to be there, she wants to go as far as she can.”
Haiss has witnessed Hiltz’s combination of “happy to be there” and competitive vibes since their freshman season in 2013. She can rattle off numerous examples of Hiltz relaxing in the moment and then finding her lethal kick. Hiltz's runner-up performances at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2017 and 2018, her Sunset Tour win at Azusa in July and the USATF Championship were all moments where she could have succumbed to exhaustion or fatigue but still found a way.
“She wasn’t in this position you’d expect someone to be in to get third,” Haiss says. “But watching how she’s able to maneuver her way through the last 100 meters shows how simple her mindset is and how she can quickly make decisions because she’s so clear-headed.”
Hiltz isn’t in the position that most people–including herself–expected her to be in during her first professional season. Since coming out in 2016, she’s been able to live as her true self and use her clear mind as her sharpest tool, navigating her towards success on a global stage.