Transgender, nonbinary 1,500 runner Nikki Hiltz shines on and off track, earns spot at Paris Games

EUGENE, Ore. — While Nikki Hiltz took a victory lap to celebrate a long-awaited trip to the Olympics, some fans reached out and handed bracelets to their favorite 1,500-meter runner — a runner who is doing this, in part, for them.

These days, Hiltz, who’s transgender and nonbinary, is shining in two lanes — on the track as one of the world’s top middle distances runners with a trip to Paris upcoming, and away from it as a role model for the queer community. Hiltz, who’s always competed in the female category, uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” and highly suggests people get used to that because they aren’t going anywhere.

“I’m just looking forward to keep showing up as myself and keep taking up space,” the 29-year-old Hiltz said Sunday at the U.S. track trials after earning their first trip to the Olympics. “I use they/them pronouns and people stumble all the time. But it’s like, ‘You can’t really ignore me anymore, because I’m a two-time, back-to-back champion. I’m here, get-it-right’ kind of vibe.”

Hiltz’s race plan last Sunday went exactly according to how they drew it up. They got out to a fast start, stayed close to the lead pack and took off at the end. Hiltz ran a personal best and meet-record time of 3 minutes, 55.33 seconds to hold off Emily Mackay and Elle St. Pierre by less than a second.

Flashback to the 2021 Olympic trials: It didn’t go as planned and they finished last in a final won by St. Pierre.

“I’ve just done so much work since then,” Hiltz said. “So much mental work and obviously physical work, too. It’s just a journey.”

Three months before the trials in ’21, life began to change for Hiltz. In a post on social media, they announced — “I’m Nikki and I’m transgender.”

The American record holder in the women’s mile remembers March 31, 2021, as a day when friends, family, fans and even track rivals could see Hiltz for who they really were.

As Hiltz gets ready to run in Paris next month, they know they are not just running for themselves. They are now equal parts athlete and LGBTQ+ advocate in a world where transgender participation in sports has become one of society’s most divisive lightning rods.

“I definitely pour a lot of myself and a lot of my time and energy into the queer community and being an advocate,” Hiltz said last summer in an interview before world championships in Budapest, Hungary. “But I do that because I get so much in return. I feel like every time I meet another nonbinary person in the queer community, they provide me with more representation. They always say that I’m doing that for them, but I think representation is a two-way street and I definitely feel empowered.”

Hiltz competing in the female category doesn’t raise the same issues as faced by transgender women.

Two years ago, swimmer Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship. It triggered new policies across sports.

World Aquatics effectively banned transgender women from competing in women’s events and World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, has grappled with versions of this issue for a while.

Last year, it implemented stricter rules for intersex athletes with differences in sex development. Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800-meter champion who has differences in sex development, is now barred from competing. She’s said she won’t undergo the medical or surgical procedures she would need to in order to compete under the new rules, which ban her from all events unless she undergoes hormone-suppressing treatment for six months before competing.

“The overarching principle for me,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said last year, “is we will always do what we think is in the best interest of our sport.

For Hiltz, the point always boils down to this — inclusivity.

“As someone who’s competed in women’s sports my whole life, I think we do need protecting, but I don’t think it’s from trans women,” Hiltz said last summer. “I think it’s from abusive coaches. Or there are so many more issues, like equal representation, equal pay.

“Those are the issues I would love to address instead of trans women, because that’s not something we’ve ever had to have protecting from.”

Each year Hiltz organizes a 5K race to support LGBTQ+ organizations. The mantra is a “shared determination to show we belong anywhere we decide to be.”

“I want to continue to work to make space for everyone,” Hiltz said.

On the track, Hiltz had a sizzling summer a year ago, running 4:16.35 to break a longstanding American mile mark set by Mary Slaney in 1985.

This season, they’ve only gotten faster and are moving on to a grander stage — the Olympics in Paris.

They earned their spot on the track at the University of Oregon, where Hiltz’s college career began (they later went to Arkansas ). Hiltz recalled a moment during their freshman year in Eugene where they snuck into Hayward Field with some friends and sat down on the track to do some dreaming.

“I just remember thinking like, ‘I’m going to have a moment here one day,’” recalled Hiltz, who moved to the higher elevation of Flagstaff, Arizona. “Something inside of me was like, ‘I want to win a race here and I want it to be a big one.’”

They did just that, too.

“I’m so privileged,” Hiltz said last Sunday. “I have an incredible support system. My family has always been accepting of me, when I came out about my sexuality, and then when I came out with my gender identity. I just know so many queer people don’t have that love and support.”


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