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Editor’s Note: Nikki Hiltz is competing on Saturday, April 24, at the USATF Grand Prix at the Oregon Relays (5pm ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).
By Nikki Hiltz, as told to Alex Azzi
Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, one of the most popular summer activities was junior lifeguards.
It was everything that I loved: running, swimming, and being at the beach with my friends. Just imagine a bunch of little kids running around in red bathing suits learning how to be lifeguards.
But when I was six years old, I did not want to wear one of those girls’ bathing suits. And so I didn’t sign up for junior lifeguards.
I did watch the junior guards from afar, though. That summer, my older sister was in her third year of the program. I remember sitting on the seawall with my mom – watching the other kids run around the beach – and feeling like I had been benched, forced to watch a game from the sidelines when all I wanted to do was play.
Ahead of the next summer, my sister needed a new red bathing suit. We stopped by O’Neill Surf Shop, which had a dedicated “Junior Lifeguards” department. I remember noticing board shorts and rash guards and asking my mom, ‘If I wear these, can I do junior guards too?’
And so, a few weeks later, I arrived at Santa Cruz beach for my first day of junior lifeguards. I remember feeling confident in my board shorts and rash guard, so excited to be with my friends.
I was lucky that the instructors didn’t care I wasn’t wearing one of those girls’ bathing suits.
Because it was on that beach – my bare feet hitting the sand – that I fell in love with running.
And I kept running.
I ran in college, first at Oregon and then at Arkansas. I turned pro in 2018, signing with adidas.
The 2019 season marked a breakthrough in my career. I felt confident and it showed in my results: I PR’d in the 1500m four times and represented the U.S. at the 2019 World Championships.
But ahead of one race, I remember hearing the announcer say, ‘Women’s 1500 meters, first call,’ and having to remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me.’
The playing field can be a very gendered place. While everyone – regardless of their profession – is navigating a binary world, sports are built on that binary.
For that reason, I found myself starting to resent my sport. I felt like track was forcing me into a gender identity that didn’t feel representative. But I also didn’t feel like I had another option, other than waiting for my career to end so I could come out and be open about my gender identity.
Last year, when the world shut down and I couldn’t compete, I had a lot more time for self-discovery.
Over the summer, I held a virtual 5k to raise money for the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth.
And four runners used the race to come out.
Those four runners made me realize that this is an event I want to host every year. So ahead of this year’s virtual 5k – (Mark your calendars for July 17!) – I recorded podcast episodes with each of them.
After the very first conversation, I realized I was ready to share my truth.
I finally had the context and language to tell the rest of the world, ‘Hi I’m Nikki and I’m transgender.’
Being transgender means my gender identity doesn’t align with the sex I was assigned at birth.
The best way I can explain my gender is as fluid. 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.
Right now, they/them pronouns feel the most affirming to me.
And just to clear up a few misconceptions: While some trans people do have gender-affirming surgery, that’s not what makes you trans. Identifying as trans just means that your gender identity doesn’t align with the sex you were assigned at birth.
In other words: I’m not changing who I am, I’m just showing up as myself. This is who I’ve been my entire life.
Coming out as trans wasn’t my first experience with coming out.
In 2017, I came out about my sexuality. Gay marriage had just been legalized two years earlier, and while homophobia certainly persists today, being gay was generally accepted.
But coming out as trans in 2021? The world is a really scary place for trans people right now.
So far this year, over 30 states have either introduced or discussed legislation that would bar transgender athletes from playing sports. Many of these bills would prohibit trans individuals of all ages – from kindergarten through college – from participating.
This legislation represents an organized attack to erase people like me.
And some states have gone even farther. Last week – despite pleas from doctors, social workers, and the trans community – the Arkansas state legislature passed HB 1570, a bill that makes it illegal for trans youth to receive gender-affirming health care.
I imagine what I would have felt like had this law passed in 2016, when I first arrived at Arkansas. For two years, I represented a state that I now wouldn’t feel safe visiting.
That’s actually a big part of the reason I decided to come out. Because the issue isn’t trans people, but transphobia.
I’m a firm believer that visibility and vulnerability are essential to creating inclusive spaces.
I’m so grateful for the trans folks who came before me, who weren’t afraid to show up as themselves. Thanks to them, I feel a responsibility to be authentic and open and visible because I know that I can create space for someone else.
And when I race, there’s an idea that helps me reach the finish line that much faster: if you win, you will be seen. The camera follows the athlete in the lead, the interview goes to the athlete who wins.
And if that athlete is me, I know there is power in my being seen. Because representation is so important.
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