No matter what happens at the USATF Outdoor Championships this week, Nikki Hiltz feels like they “already won.”
For the last six months, the transgender, nonbinary runner raced without an apparel or shoe sponsor, a period that put Hiltz in a “dark place,” they said. But amid the uncertainty, the middle-distance specialist emerged with a new support team and continued to hone their voice as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. When Hiltz competes in the first round of the 1500 meters on Thursday, they’ll make their racing debut as Lululemon’s newest brand ambassador.
“I’m excited to be with a brand where our values align and they see me for more than just a runner,” Hiltz, who goes by they/them pronouns, told Runner’s World. “They see what I’m doing off the track as well and they value that just as much.”
While spending years developing into one of the nation’s top elite runners, Hiltz has navigated a personal journey as an outspoken LGBTQ+ leader in sports. In 2018, after Hiltz graduated from the University of Arkansas as a seven-time All-American with two runner-up finishes in the 1500 meters at the NCAA championships, they turned pro and signed a shoe contract with Adidas. In 2019, Hiltz qualified for their first global championship and finished 12th in the 1500-meter final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar.
On March 31, 2021—Transgender Day of Visibility—Hiltz came out as transgender, nonbinary on Instagram. “It was an exciting and personal moment for me, because I’m finally at a place in my life where I can share who I’ve been all along,” Hiltz wrote in a 2021 essay for Runner’s World.
In December 2021, their contract with Adidas was up. Hiltz had the option to resign with the footwear company, but they ultimately chose to explore new opportunities that went beyond a performance-oriented agreement, they said. “It was definitely scary to walk away from that,” Hiltz said. “But I think something inside me knew there was a brand out there that could value me for my running and my advocacy.”
Hiltz didn’t identify those brands right away, so they focused on building new sources of personal support and racing for the transgender community. Still, competing as an unsponsored athlete came with challenges. “When you’re stepping on a line and you’re not in a kit like everyone else, there’s almost this level of like, do I belong anymore?” Hiltz said.
Without the stipulations that come with a pro contract, Hiltz chose to lean into their role as an advocate. In January, they kicked off their indoor season by competing in a singlet with the message “Protect Trans Kids” at the Millrose Games. The decision followed a recent wave of anti-transgender legislation with many of the bills introduced denying medical care for transgender youth. In March, Hiltz created their own T-shirts with “Track Club” emblazoned in rainbow colors and asked the running community to buy shirts in support of their season while competing unsponsored. The community responded by placing over 400 orders in the first couple of days.
“By wearing ‘Protect Trans Kids,’ I was like, this is my team, all the trans youth out there, this is my sponsor. I’m doing this for more than just me,” Hiltz said. “I went from that dark place to resurrecting my love for the sport.”
While fielding offers from other running companies, a call with Lululemon in March showed an alignment with Hiltz’s goals in a partnership. Instead of placing all of the focus on performance, Hiltz said the team at Lululemon engaged in collaborative conversations about their advocacy initiatives, including the Pride 5K—a race Hiltz created that donates proceeds to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth—and expanding their efforts to make running more inclusive for the LGBTQ+ community.
“[Lululemon is] not just lip-servicing these things or being performative. They’re really putting the money and resources behind it to create those safe spaces for people,” Hiltz said.
On the racing side, Hiltz has continued to lead discussions on ways the running community can be a safer space for LGBTQ+ individuals. For example, after the announcers of the Portland Track Festival used incorrect pronouns when describing Hiltz, they engaged in a conversation with race organizers about ways to collaborate on creating a more inclusive environment in competition. Hiltz said they appreciated the accountability taken and action steps proposed by the announcers, which included asking runners to fill out a form with their preferred pronouns prior to competition. “There are these conversations happening within the sport of how can we be better?” Hiltz said. “We all figure it out together. It’s not about shaming anyone. It’s this collaborative thing to be better.”
In March, Hiltz moved from San Diego, California, to a new training base in Flagstaff, Arizona, where they are now being coached by Mike Smith, who also coaches Northern Arizona University’s track and cross-country programs. Their new training group includes Olympian Rachel Smith and first-year pro Elly Henes. All three have helped create a supportive, safe space for Hiltz, they said. “This group is incredible and they’ve been super willing to listen and learn and be advocates as well,” Hiltz said, explaining that all three use their correct pronouns and make efforts to remind others.
In October, Hiltz will host the first in-person version of the Pride 5K in Flagstaff. After two years of holding the race virtually during the pandemic, Hiltz is looking forward to bringing the community together at their new home base.
First, they’ll compete for a spot on Team USA headed to the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon this summer. The first round of the 1500 meters is scheduled to go off at 10 p.m. EDT on Thursday, while the finals are set for Saturday at 4:52 p.m. EDT.
After navigating the highs and lows of the last six months, Hiltz is finally able to place their focus on enjoying the process, and is already well on their way.
“I originally got into this sport because I loved it, and I don’t think that should go away ever,” they said. “I’m leaning into that.”
Taylor Dutch is a sports and fitness writer living in Chicago; a former NCAA track athlete, Taylor specializes in health, wellness, and endurance sports coverage.
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