Sports Is Where Trans Nonbinary Runner Nikki Hiltz Found Themself

By Dawn Ennis, Contributor
Nikki Hiltz in May 2020. Twitter

The New York Road Runners organization is celebrating a milestone this weekend: The 40th anniversary of an iconic race along 20 blocks of Manhattan’s most famous thoroughfare. With Central Park on their right, multi-million-dollar high-rise homes on their left, runners taking part in the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile will step off Sunday morning just south of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’ll race past the Central Park Zoo on their way to the finish line at Grand Army Plaza, just across from the iconic Plaza Hotel.

One of those runners is someone who just two weeks ago ran the mile faster than anyone else in Yakima, Wash.: Nikki Hiltz, a six-time All American and Adidas athlete from San Diego, Calif., taking part in their last event of 2021. They made headlines in the sports world and across the LGBTQ community when they came out as transgender nonbinary earlier this year on Instagram.

Nikki Hiltz came out on Instagram on March 31, 2021. Instagram photo by Aisha McAdams

“Sometimes I wake up feeling like a powerful queen and other days I wake up feeling as if I’m just a guy being a dude, and other times I identify outside of the gender binary entirely,” they wrote in their Instagram post. “It’s complicated and complex and something I’m still trying to navigate myself, but I’ve decided it’s time to share my gender fluidity with you all. Posting this is both exciting and terrifying but I am and always will be a firm believer that vulnerability and visibility are essential in creating social change and acceptance.”

“It feels so good to be seen.”

“I obviously have known about my gender my entire life,” Hiltz told me in a Zoom conversation shortly after Yakima. “I think it's just within the past two years, finally having the education and context for what that means, to not only articulate it to myself and to have those all moments myself, but to also tell the world that, too. This is something I've been wanting to share, just didn't really know how.”

But this wasn’t the first time Hiltz had come out, they tweeted:

“So here I am, once again, coming out of a closet to be my true authentic self,” Hiltz wrote in that Instagram post. In our conversation, they explained that the closet door this time cracked opened after a 5K they created, and conversations with its runners.

“Last summer, 2020, when the world shut down, I decided to put on a race, and I wanted to have all the proceeds go to the Trevor Project. And at that time, I was essentially a closeted trans person, and really desperate to make this safe space for people in the community.”

The first Nikki Hiltz Pride 5K was held June 28, 2020. “Nearly 2,000 people from around the world signed up,” Hiltz told RunnersWorld magazine. “People who had never run farther than two miles completed a 5K for the first time, and there was an entire family that ran the race together to celebrate a daughter who had recently come out.

“In total, we ended up donating $33,000 to the Trevor Project.”

This year’s Pride 5K raised more than $42K for the leading national nonprofit that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.

Instagram post by Nikki Hiltz Pride 5K Instagram

What surprised Hiltz, they said, was that many participants seized the event as an opportunity to come out. “I was making it for them, and not for me, until that space became that place for me,” said Hiltz. The stories of runners finally owning their truth inspired conversations, and the idea of a podcast.

“I wanted to know their experience and how they used the race,” recalled Hiltz. “So, I decided to record my conversations with them and turn them into podcasts. And so my very first conversation, I was using this shitty app, and talking, not really knowing what I'm doing, but just having a conversation with someone, asking questions like, ‘How does it feel to come out?’ or ‘Walk me through that day,’ and things like that.”

“As a closeted person. listening to someone's coming out story, that was the last push I needed.”

They made their decision. The next day just happened to be an important day on the calendar for the transgender community. “We have these days throughout the year, like National Coming Out Day in October or Pride Month in June, where people are having these conversations,” they said. “Trans Day of Visibility is one of those days. And I was like, ‘OK, perfect. I'm just going to jump on this. I'm ready. I'm going to do it.’ I guess that was the catalyst of using my running to create this race and then using that race to feel safe enough to come out; That’s kind of my journey with it.” Hiltz composed a post for Instagram and published it on March 31:

“Today I can be visible because of the many trans folks who have paved the way for me. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you and happy Trans Day of Visibility to my beautiful and powerful trans family.”

Hiltz, 26, also credits the support of their parents and sister both as an athlete and in their identity.

Clockwise from left to right: Liz Hiltz, Nikki Hiltz, Tom Hiltz and Michaela Hiltz. Instagram

“My family is definitely my biggest support when it comes to me and my running and obviously, I've come out to them as well, and they're extremely loving and supporting in that way, too,” said Hiltz, while admitting that there have been bumps along the way, as far as their parents and pronouns. “It is because, I think, there is a generational difference. But they're always willing to learn and grow.” That’s the key, they said. “It's just a slow, slow learning process. But I feel like I'm very patient with them. And it's very different when someone's accidentally slipping up, versus intentionally trying to misgender me. And my family definitely does not do that.”

Growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., they said they knew they were different, even as young as six.

Nikki Hiltz as a child Instagram

“When I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, I wished that the next morning, I would wake up a boy.”

“Six-year-old me expressed my gender identity through having short hair, wearing baseball caps, and refusing to wear dresses,” Hiltz wrote in an op-ed for RunningWorld. “I felt most like myself when I was playing football with the boys during recess, when my dad called me Nick instead of Nikki, and when the substitute teachers would mistake me for a boy.”

Hiltz attended Aptos High School and is a University of Arkansas alum. They’ve been an avid runner for a decade, although in junior high, cross country and track weren’t taken seriously.

“That was such a joke,” they said. “We ran maybe a mile a day.” That all changed in their freshman year of high school, when Hiltz “got serious.”

“It sounds weird, but at this point, running is like my job,” they said. “But obviously, it wasn't always that. It was something that I felt I just fell in love with, that competitive side of it.

“Innately, I'm really a competitive person.”

Hiltz said they’re mindful of their future in the sport, and staying in shape. “Honestly, it's just my desire to want to be my best. And yeah, in a race, I just want to beat everyone around me.”

They certainly did that last month in Yakima, Wash., not only winning a race and its prize but breaking the women’s record for the fastest mile ever run in that state.

Why Yakima? Hiltz said, it may seem “random,” but they named some valid reasons: “It had a really big prize purse, which is awesome. You know, not a lot of races have that much prize money. So I think that really attracted a lot of athletes to run it. And it was really fun! I ran well. I ran fast.”

And it was “definitely slightly downhill,” Hiltz added, “but don’t tell anyone.”

That victory two weeks ago propelled them to New York City, while many other runners are shutting down for the season after this long, grueling year. Hiltz said they wouldn’t miss this opportunity.

“After Yakima,” said Hiltz, “I was like, ‘No, I want to keep going. I want to do that.’

“And I love New York.”

“I love going there because I have a lot of fans and followers in New York and getting to connect with all those people before and after the race is so fun. And I can't think of a better city to end this very long, important season.”

Nikki Hiltz, left, and girlfriend, runner Emma Gee, pose in Times Square, New York, N.Y. Instagram

I asked Hiltz, why is that? What is it about New York that draws them here?

“I think it's so wildly different than anything I've ever experienced,” they said. “I'm from Santa Cruz, California, which is like a small coastal beach town in Northern California. And I've lived in Oregon, in Arkansas for college, now back in California. But it's just so terrifying! Like there's no other word for it. You drive in from Newark or wherever you fly in from, and you're like, it's just chaos. But it's very exciting, especially just for a weekend. I don't know if I could live there. I think I could live there for, like, either one summer or like one year.”

Wherever Hiltz goes, so goes girlfriend Emma Gee. They spent part of their visit to New York City touring Times Square and enjoying tennis at the U.S. Open at the stadium in Queens named for trailblazer Billie Jean King.

Nikki Hiltz, right, plants a kiss on Emma Gee at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Instagram

Like Hilt, Gee is a runner and exudes positivity. Upon qualifying for nationals in June, she posted on Instagram that she achieved her goal: “For me, running was never about running. It was about building a good relationship with myself.”

Emma Gee, left, kisses Nikki Hiltz holding a rainbow Pride flag on the campus of Brigham Young University. Instagram

Gee was the first and only out LGBTQ student-athlete at Brigham Young University; She’s now a graduate student at Temple University and has shattered three school track records. Hiltz said Gee made their coming out as trans nonbinary so much easier than it would have been without her by their side.

“Emma's been, like, everything,” they said. “As soon as I met her, one of the first things we talked about was sexuality and, ‘How were your parents when you came out?’ things like that. How all queer relationships start, talking about your past trauma. But one of the first things she asked me was, ‘Tell me about your gender identity.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’

“Anyone that knows Emma knows that she's just someone that you can feel really comfortable around, and she can get people to open up like I've never seen.”

“She was the first person I ever really went ‘there’ with,” Hiltz said. “I can't think of anyone better who has been more supportive throughout this whole journey. She grew up Mormon, and if Emma can do the work to challenge the way she was conditioned to think, I think we all can do that as well. And so she's just been an inspiration of mine to do that.”

Emma Gee, left, with Nikki Hiltz on her 24th birthday. Instagram

Although Hiltz fell short of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team this past summer, there were bright moments along with the darker ones.

Nikki Hiltz wins the second heat in the semifinals of the women's 1500-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on June 19, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. AP Photo: Ashley Landis ASSOCIATED PRESS

Hiltz flashed peace signs with their hands as they crossed the finish line in the 1500-meter semifinal race at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials in Eugene, Ore. in June.

As the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported, they posted the fastest time of any runner in the two semifinal heats. They won the second semifinal in 4:05.87.

Athing Mu and Nikki Hiltz compete in the first round of the Women's 800 Meter Run on day seven of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 24, 2021 in Eugene, Ore. Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images. Getty Images

But at the finals, with the temperature on the track recorded at 120 degrees, Hiltz fell short, literally: They got into a smash-up with another sprinter just after the starting gun, reported myhighplains.com, and never recovered. Hiltz dropped from fourth to last and finished 13th in the 1500-meter final, with a time of 4:10.60; They were more than nine seconds off their personal best and more than five seconds off their season best. The meet was won by Elle Purrier St. Pierre in a record and personal-best 3:58.03. Cory McGee finished second in a personal-best 4:00.67. Heather MacLean claimed Team USA’s final Olympic berth in the event with a time of 4:02.09.

But even that disappointment, even when combined with an NBC analyst getting their pronouns wrong (and later publicly apologizing), the setback did not derail Hiltz’s abundant positivity.

In July, Hiltz shared with Instagram followers that, like Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, they’ve struggled with “what felt like the weight of the world on my shoulders.” In their case, it was the hatred directed at trans athletes and the pressure from anti-trans bigots that was at the center of Hiltz’s struggle. They came up with a plan with their coach and training partner to prioritize their mental health and well-being.

“If it costs you your peace, it’s too expensive.”

For now they’ve set their sights on qualifying for the next summer games in 2024 or 2028. “I think about Paris, or L.A. 2028 is really alluring because it's a U.S. Olympics and as an American, that would be really special to end my career there,” said Hiltz. “But that's like a fairy tale Cinderella story. I know that might not happen. And there's ups and downs in everyone's careers. But I think, ideally, I would want to be a professional runner through 2028 and then kind of close the book and start the next chapter.”

Does that chapter include running a marathon, like the world-famous New York City Marathon? “I would love to do a marathon at some point,” Hiltz said, but added they wouldn’t want to run it competitively. “I would do it for fun, or maybe do it for a charity or something with a group of people.” And then they joked:

“It's too far. I run the mile, I run one mile, not 26!”

But whatever else fills that chapter, Hiltz expects to be involved in sports even after they retire in 2024 or 2028.

“It's the first place where I ever felt like I can be myself,” they said. “I think, along my journey, sports has been at the forefront of discovering myself. I’ve discovered other, very incredible, inspirational stories all because I follow sports.”

Follow Nikki Hiltz on Instagram by clicking here. More information about the New York Road Runners is here and to watch Nikki Hiltz and all the participants run on Sunday, visit the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile race page by clicking here for details on how to watch the free livestream on usatf.tv


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