In coming out as trans, Nikki Hiltz is visible, vulnerable, and making track more inclusive

Nikki Hiltz
Courtesy Nikki Hiltz

Editor’s Note: On Monday night, Nikki Hiltz will compete in the final of the women’s 1500m at U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon (NBCSN 7pm ET, NBC 8pm ET). Hiltz, who is aiming to make their first Olympic team, has had a strong showing so far in Eugene. They finished second in their preliminary heat and first in their semifinal heat. 

By Nikki Hiltz, as told to Alex Azzi

First published: April 23, 2021

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.

Courtesy Nikki Hiltz

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.

Nikki Hiltz
Courtesy Nikki Hiltz

Watch Nikki Hiltz compete at U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials: Full broadcast and streaming schedule

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    Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

    Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
    Getty Images

    PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

    The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

    “This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

    “Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

    Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

    Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

    “I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

    For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

    MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

    “Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

    Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

    “To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

    Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

    “I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

    She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

    “Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

    The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

    Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

    Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
    Getty Images

    PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

    The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

    “I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

    That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

    “Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

    What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

    “It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

    Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

    MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

    “My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

    “It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

    She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

    Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

    “The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

    Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

    “By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

    Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.