How Transgender Runner Nikki Hiltz Rose to the Top of Track

by Pelican Press
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A transgender pride flag appeared in the stands of Hayward Stadium in Eugene, Ore., just as the middle distance runner Nikki Hiltz stepped onto the track.

The pink, blue and white flag was held overhead, then waved as Hiltz, who identifies as transgender and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, made their way to the far side of the track for the 1,500-meter final of the U.S. National Championships in July.

“It was a statement,” Hiltz said. “It reminded me that this is bigger than just me.”

After 4 minutes 3.10 seconds, Hiltz broke the tape with an explosive final kick to overpower a stacked field that included Athing Mu, the 800 gold medalist at the Tokyo Games; Cory McGee and Heather MacLean, Olympic 1,500 runners; and Sinclaire Johnson, the 2022 national champion in the event.

Hiltz had gotten to this point, they said, partially because of the community around them that cheers not because of their fast times but because of what and who they stand for, starting with themselves.

“I just feel like the L.G.B.T.Q. community needed a win,” Hiltz, 28, said soon after becoming the national champion. A smile was painted across their face. This was a ticket to the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, yes, but it was more.

Since publicly sharing their gender identity on March 31, 2021, Hiltz has shouldered this weight of representation, one they embrace.

Doing so has brought Hiltz joy in their community and anguish as they bare witness to an onslaught of bills placing restrictions on transgender youth, limiting sports participation, gender-affirming medical care and bathroom access.

Legislation has directly targeted adults’ health care, too. Bills introduced in Oklahoma and South Carolina would make it a felony to provide hormonal or surgical transition treatment to transgender people younger than 26.

In March, the international governing body of track and field, World Athletics, effectively barred transgender women from competing at the highest levels of the sport. The exclusion, similar to rules set by the world governing body for swimming in June 2022, would apply to “male-to-female transgender athletes who have been through male puberty.”

The rules, which are mostly targeted toward transgender women, are some of the strictest in international sports.

For Hiltz to continue competing at the top level of women’s fields, they cannot pursue gender-affirming care, meaning, specifically, taking testosterone. They hope to one day have top surgery, a gender-affirming double mastectomy, but at this point the goal would be to wait until they have had the opportunity to qualify for and race in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

“Right now, competing in the women’s category still feels OK for me and my gender and where I’m at with that journey,” Hiltz said. “But the second it doesn’t, I’m not going to sacrifice myself for my sport. I’m going to choose the relationship with myself before my relationship with track and field.”

It is a sensitive conversation Hiltz has with a frequency that would make even the most media savvy athletes freeze. Hiltz is not just asked about their race strategy, their training or their reaction to their finish time. They are also asked to explain, if not justify, their existence, and contextualize it within this era of culture wars. What does this win mean for them? What does it mean for the entire queer community, or for representation at large?

“I’ve talked probably more about my trans identities than actually unpacking the race,” Hiltz said the afternoon after winning the national title. That is important, they said, but they added, “I am a nerdy athlete at the end of the day; I want to talk about tactics.”

Tactically, this race began some three years ago, when Hiltz changed just about everything.

They ended an Adidas contract and started one with Lululemon. They moved from Southern California, where they spent most of their life, to the flourishing high-altitude running capital of Flagstaff, Ariz. They began working with Mike Smith, the coach at Northern Arizona University, and found new training partners. They adopted a dog named Scout with their partner, the fellow runner Emma Gee. And they became a race organizer, hosting a virtual and now in-person Pride 5-kilometer race to support L.G.B.T.Q. organizations.

By the time in-person events and racing returned as the pandemic reached a new stage, Hiltz had a community waiting to cheer them on. Titles in road miles and track meets across the United States followed.

People “light up when they are in Nikki’s presence,” their mother, Liz Hiltz, said. “They feel like, ‘I’m in a safe place,’ and you can tell this is not happening to them very much. It breaks your heart open that they can have that much influence making people seen and heard.”

So when Hiltz arrived in Eugene with a plan to host a community Pride run the day after the 1,500 final, they felt like they had already won. It is the type of sentiment shared frequently by athletes, intended to lighten what can be crushing pressure. But when Hiltz says it, it is not hard to believe.

“There’s less weight on the race because I’m so balanced outside of it,” Hiltz said.

Gee, who organizes the Pride 5K event along side Hiltz, nodded.

“It’s addressing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” she said, referring to the 1943 theory that humans’ most basic needs must be met before they can concern themselves with anything else. “To have such a big, crazy, intense athletic performance and then to have that community space already set up the next day is so healing.”

Hours before the race on July 8, Hiltz received their regular race quote (or in this case, the first verse and the chorus from the song “The Cape” by Guy Clark) from their mother, who says she consults everything from “Dr. Seuss to Rumi” to find the right kind of inspirational message to send before Hiltz steps on the track. The tradition dates to Hiltz’s days competing at the University of Arkansas. If the race does not go well, Liz Hiltz will sometimes blame the quote, and never use the same author again.

When the gun went off in the 1,500 final, the dozen competitors became physical quickly. There was some jostling as athletes came around the first turn and someone stepped on the back of Hiltz’s shoe. With a quick and powerful stride, they slammed their foot down hard to get their spike back on their foot. Another athlete, Dani Jones, was not so lucky. She lost a shoe in the kerfuffle and did not finish. Hiltz tucked into the middle of the pack, patient.

When the bell rang signaling the final lap, Hiltz was cruising in fourth place, but said they knew they were going to finish in the top three to qualify for the world championships. Mu was ratcheting up the pace. Lactic acid was building and burning, and at 300 meters, Hiltz debated hitting the gas. They played it safe instead and waited for the last 50.

“No one was going to out kick me,” Hiltz said. And no one did. With the trans pride flag waving near the finish line, Hiltz flew past Mu to win the race. They passed Mu — they repeat her name in recounting the race, bugging their eyes out of their head — yes, Mu, the Olympic gold medal winner!

Mu finished second, Cory McGee third and Johnson fourth. With an automatic spot in the 800 as the defending champion, Mu decided to waive her position in the 1,500 at the world championships, so McGee and Johnson will join Hiltz on the U.S. 1,500 meter team.

In Budapest, where heats begin on Saturday, the Americans will have to contend with Faith Kipyegon, the Kenyan powerhouse who has shattered three world records in the past handful of weeks.

But no matter. A rising tide lifts all boats, Kipyegon’s competitors are known to say. There are few finish lines that are filled with more enthusiastic, full-bodied hugs after the race.

On July 21, when Kipyegon shattered the mile world record in a remarkable 4:07.64, she brought the field with her. Twelve of the 13 runners set personal bests and seven national records fell. That group included Hiltz, who set a new American record in the mile with a time of 4:16.35, breaking a mark from 1985.

It was the latest result that fueled Hiltz’s relentless belief in themselves, the same confidence they said got them to the world championships in Doha, Qatar, in 2019. But this time feels different.

“I’ve made a world final before, I’ve been there, done that,” Hiltz said. “Now I’m like ‘OK, what can I do?’”

They added: “My favorite thing is to compete and I’m excited to now do it again on the global stage in like that, with the momentum I have now and like the communities I have behind me.”

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