When middle distance runner Nikki Hiltz steps to the start line on Thursday evening at U.S. Track and Field Championships, they’ll do so with a weight off their shoulders.
“It’s so refreshing to be with a company that says, ‘Oh, we like what you do on the track, obviously, but we really like what you do off the track as well,’” Hiltz told On Her Turf ahead of the championships’ kickoff in Eugene, Ore., where they’ll compete with a sponsor for the first time in six months after announcing their new role as brand ambassador for Lululemon on Thursday.
“They really take a holistic approach and realize that athletes are humans, and [their philosophy is], ‘If you represent that our brand well, we’re going to work with you. That’s all that matters,’” Hiltz added. “I think that, especially going into USAs with this new partnership, I feel like there’s no pressure. A weight is off, and I feel because of that, I’m going to be able to run my best.”
Since January, the 27-year-old Hiltz, who came out last year as nonbinary, has been running without a major sponsor, having parted ways with Adidas when their contract ended in December. While they had the option to re-sign with the company, Hiltz ultimately chose to explore opportunities that went beyond the traditional, performance-oriented contracts that are the norm in track and field.
“That was really stressful,” they said of competing under the traditional contract structure. “Whenever you stepped on the line, you kind of had this extra pressure, and that was definitely something that weighed on me.
“As the athlete, we’re our biggest critics, so when you have a brand also putting that pressure on top of you, it sometimes can be not a great mix. And athletes more and more are becoming more vocal about their mental health and where their headspace needs to be, and I think it’s a beautiful thing that people are talking about it.”
They also took inspiration from previous track athletes who dumped the status quo.
“I was really empowered by (athletes) like Colleen Quigley and Mary Cain and Allyson Felix — all these women that were like, ‘I’m going to do things differently because I don’t like the mold or don’t like the way the system is, and I’m going step out of the box and try to get into partnership with a brand that is doing things differently,’” Hiltz explains. “I feel like my own journey was really inspired and empowered by those women who came before. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s cool; that’s possible. I’m going to try to do that, too.”
Hiltz spent the last six months competing in a custom-made singlet that sports the message, “Protect Trans Kids,” and in March, they created their own T-shirts with the words “Track Club” printed across in the front in rainbow colors, with the proceeds helping support their season while competing unsponsored.
ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Title IX is 50 years old. Why aren’t schools complying with the law?
However, Hiltz has been displaying their philanthropic-meets-entrepreneurial spirit for several years already, founding a virtual Pride 5K during the pandemic and raising more than $75,000 at the 2020 and 2021 events to support the Trevor Project, an organization providing crisis and suicide intervention to LGBTQ+ youth. This year’s Pride 5K, set for Oct. 2, will have an in-person component for the first time, with $2,000 of the proceeds going to the non-profit Sunnyside Neighborhood, located in their new hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Amid an ongoing barrage of legislation targeting transgender people, Hiltz remains vocal about the importance of inclusion.
“I hate that (the argument against) trans women competing in sports has been reworded to, ‘We need to protect women’s sports, and we need to exclude this group of people in order to do that,’” said Hiltz. “It’s really sad to me because it’s really the opposite of what Title IX stands for, right? It’s like we’re just doing the same thing (excluding people), but now to a different group. …It’s not breaking the cycle.
“I go back to like, well, trans women are women, and we need to protect them as well. So many of those people don’t give a sh– about women’s sports until there’s a trans woman. If we really want to protect women’s sports, let’s start with equal pay — there’s so many other issues going on, and trans women are not the biggest threat to women’s sports by any means.”
As for their immediate goals, Hiltz is aiming for the podium this week at Hayward Field in Eugene, which would qualify them for their second world championship team. Hayward is also hosting next month’s World Championships, marking the first time that the event will be staged in North America.
“My goal is to make it to the final, and then in the final, the top three,” said Hiltz, who won gold at in the 1500m at the 2019 Pan American Games and was a finalist in the 1500m at worlds that same year. “I feel really confident my training, I feel really good, like mentally healthy and happy, and I think if I just have a top-three finish it’s definitely possible.”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.