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Nikki Hiltz Hopes To Become One Of The First Openly Transgender Athletes At The Olympics

Nikki Hiltz in competition at the 2019 World Athletics Championships (USATF)
Nikki Hiltz in competition at the 2019 World Athletics Championships (USATF)

Professional runner Nikki Hiltz recently decided it was time to share a truth.

The middle-distance runner had been openly gay for years, but it was during a virtual fundraiser last summer about suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth that Hiltz realized it was time to tell the whole story.

Four people used the race as an opportunity to come out, so Hiltz wanted to hear their stories before this year’s event. These conversations served as one of the last pushes that Hiltz needed to come out as transgender and nonbinary.

The 26-year-old is now vying for one of three spots on the Olympic team as a qualifying contestant running the women’s 1,500-meter event at the U.S. Track and Field Trials, which start on Friday in Eugene, Oregon.

“I’m feeling really excited. It’s definitely been a long time coming,” they say. “I’ve been a professional runner for three years now, but I’ve always dreamed of racing for a chance to be on our Olympic team.”

COVID-19 has been an added stress for athletes preparing to compete, they say. When it comes to the COVID-19 concerns surrounding the Olympics, Hiltz trusts USA Track & Field and the International Olympic Committee to make the right decisions.

On top of adjusting to COVID-19 precautions, Hiltz says the past year has been “transformative.”

“I’ve just kind of been living my truth a few months now, and it just feels like a weight has been lifted,” they say. “Any time as an athlete I can step on the track and I can be my true self, I’m going to run my best and I’m going to perform my best.”

Hiltz feels grateful for the transgender people who paved the way for their journey and hopes to create more space for others to be themselves.

But it’s been difficult to deal with people’s opinions about their identity, Hiltz says.

Hiltz was assigned female at birth but doesn’t identify with either binary gender, rather identifying as nonbinary and using they/them pronouns.

“It’s just been very affirming to hear the announcers or people, you know, refer to me as they/them,” they say. “And it just feels more right.”

In a piece for NBC Sports, Hiltz paints a picture of their younger self in Santa Cruz, California, reveling in the physicality of lifeguarding, running and swimming — using this instrument of their body. But somewhere along the way, as they made their way into organized sports, they realized that sports were built on the gender binary.

Hiltz is trying to create space to be a nonbinary athlete in the gendered world of sports and start conversations around how to loosen these “strict binaries” in our society.

“I think sport could actually be one of the first places that change can happen,” they say.

Prior to coming out, Hiltz says hiding their identity led them to start resenting running. They had to choose between coming out or waiting for their career to end to open up about their gender identity.

Language is important when talking about gender and sports, Hiltz says.

“I think some of my dysphoria I’ve experienced has been when I’m on the starting line and it’s, you know, the women’s 1,500,” they say. “And it’s kind of a little bit kind of out of body. I’m like, ‘Is that me? Is that like how I identify?’ ”

Hiltz says they recall hearing soccer star Megan Rapinoe say “athletes that compete in women’s sports” when talking about the U.S. women’s national soccer team. For them, the language “athletes in the women’s 1,500” feels right — and while they don’t have all the answers on how to address gender in sports, they’re glad to be having this conversation.


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.