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Episode #41

Be True to Your Voice

with Nikki Hiltz

16 Mar, 2021 · Track and Field

Nikki Hiltz, Professional Runner, discusses her journey in sport; coming out to friends, family, and teammates; the ins and outs of transferring schools; and her advice for staying grounded as a pro runner.

Transcript

Nikki Hiltz

 Stef

Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice.

 At Voice In Sport we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all, to keep playing and change more than just the game.

 Today we are welcoming Nikki Hiltz on the Voice In Sport podcast. Nikki is a six time NCAA All-American and professional runner for Adidas. Nikki has had quite the first few seasons as a pro runner, winning and PR in left and right. But even more importantly than Nikki's accolades on the track is that she's helping others become their authentic selves by sharing her coming out story today.

Once Nikki was true to herself, her success in sport accelerated, and as she says, this is no coincidence today. We discuss her journey in sport, coming out to friends, family, and teammates. How to have conversations with people in life who aren't very supportive, the ins and outs of transferring schools.

Yes it's possible. Her advice to stay grounded as a pro runner and what it felt like to drape the pride flag across her shoulder after her win at the Adidas boost games. In this episode, we discuss how Nikki is using her platform to drive change. In addition to speaking up for queer athletes, she also speaks up on behalf of underrepresented communities, such as the black community and the transgender community.

She speaks on the importance of using her voice, but how also to sit back when it's time to listen. Last year and Nikki put on a race to raise money for suicidal LGBTQ plus youth with the Trevor project. She also spends much for time helping others, including on the Voice In Sport platform as a VIS League mentor. She also touched on the importance of helping oneself and the importance of mental health and the power of sharing your emotions and talking to others. Nikki believes that sports has the ability to drive change, but in order for that to work, we all need to be open-minded. We are so excited for you to hear this conversation today.

We know you will enjoy it. Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast Nikki.

Nikki

 I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having me. 

 Stef

 You have such an incredible journey with running and since becoming pro, you've been getting some personal bests , which is amazing to see. And we're coming up on an Olympic year, so it's exciting that you're starting to peak during this moment in your life.  And what we're going to talk about today is,  how you got there because your journey has been incredible, both on the track and off the track. And I think the power of really finding yourself off the track can have a big impact on the track. And that's what we're really going to break down today. 

 Nikki

Yeah, I feel like as soon as I came out, I was PRing and, you know, winning all these races. And I don't think that was a coincidence at all. So if you can be happy and wholesome off the track , or in any sport, , it's definitely going to translate on the field. 

 Stef

 That's  a great life lesson in general.  When you're your own authentic self too, when you show up at work or in your job,  you're going to have better results too, and your teams are going to have better results.

So this is a good lesson, for anybody and every person out there, which is why I'm excited 

to talk to you about 

it.  So let's kind of go way back to middle school, the middle school version of Nikki. And I want you to kinda tell us a little bit about what you were thinking  inside your mind regarding both sport and sexuality.

 Nikki

Yeah, we'll take it back to a time where I didn't have it all figured out.  In middle school, I was the athlete. I feel like that was my identity. I did kind of every sport possible. so I did cross country in the fall and then I did soccer, and then I did volleyball, and then softball and then track. Every single season, I didn't not want to be doing a sport. Cause I feel like that was just my outlet and like who I identified as, and it was really fun because I had no business being on the junior high volleyball team, but , I just kind of found myself at tryouts and I made it through cuts, just I think because I was athletic enough. But I feel like middle school and junior high was also when I got my first boyfriend. And so I was trying to figure that out and , I think at first,  running  like track and cross country was my first love. And then my boyfriend was just kind of like I was doing it because everyone else was doing it. But  I was just still trying to figure it out. And  by the time I was a freshman and into high school, I think that's when I really was like Kind of figuring out that, okay.  I think I really am just going with the flow here. I don't think I'm actually attracted to these boys. I think I'm just kind of falling into the mold of what I should be doing or what I see all my friends doing which was really hard because, you know, I was in these relationships and I remember. I think it was junior high being at a sleepover. And people were like, Oh, who do you have a crush on? And , it was like , this moment of people's like, Oh, I really like Brandon because he's funny and cute and gives me butterflies. And I  just remember thinking like, Oh my God, I feel that way but I feel that way about a girl. But I think I just was like, When it got to my turn, I was like, I like Brandon too.  Just trying to fit the mold and fit in. But yeah,  I wasn't really being honest with myself. I think that took until my freshman year of college to kind of be like, okay,  I actually don't identify as straight and, I need to unpack this and figure this out  in order to be happy. So yeah, that's kind of my middle school through high school journey of young Nikki. 

 Stef

 It's incredible because I think a lot of girls find themselves in a similar situation. Whether it's a summer party or not, but  in a group conversation at school, and everybody's talking about one thing one way, and then all of a sudden they don't feel like they fit in that mold, but they're afraid to speak up. So , what advice would you give to your younger self in that situation sitting there at that slumber party,  still trying to figure it out because at that age, and a lot of times you are still trying to figure out your identity and who you're attracted to, and that's a hard situation to be in. 

Nikki

 I think I would just keep it simple and be like, it's okay to be different. we're all different. And that's what makes us special and unique. And I mean, I don't know if that advice would have made me like. "Okay, everyone I'm gay," but I think just knowing that and reassuring, okay. Like, you know, it is okay to be different and it's something to celebrate , whatever that difference is, it's actually like special to be. 

Stef

 I love that. And , when you were younger, did you open up to any of your friends or your family members in junior high school or high school? 

Nikki

 No, I don't think so, because honestly at that point, I was still trying to figure it out myself. And so I think the first person  in my journey of coming out, that I had to come out to was myself and I wasn't there yet at that time. It probably wasn't until freshman year of college when I really  , looked at myself in the mirror and was like, okay, , I am gay, I am attracted to women. And so I think I just had to go through that journey of figuring it out, but I am so excited for this younger generation, because I think that journey is happening quicker and earlier. And they can be themselves  way earlier on than  waiting until college or a big life change to kind of go deep into their sexuality. 

Stef

 I totally agree. I think we are becoming a more open society where there's not one right way, which is really exciting to see. And that's part of why we started Voice In Sport, because being inclusive is great way to 

bring out 

not just amazing things from individuals, but amazing things from groups of people. So  it's exciting to see that. I mean, then you had an amazing high school, in terms of performance, so even though you weren't 100% open about maybe how you were feeling with your sexual identity, you did win the California state title in the 1600 meter.

 Nikki

 Like I said before, it was because running was my love and I loved it and it was just my outlet, where I could kind of escape all these other thoughts that were going on, and  I had a blast. I think anytime I'm successful in my career, it's when I'm just having so much fun. And I loved my high school teammates and my coach, and we just had such a good team environment. And , that was the highlight of my day going to practice every day. And so Yeah, you know, I was successful enough to make it to the next level and  get to college and continue to do what I love. 

Stef

So you earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon for track and field, which is awesome. So you move from California  to Oregon. You start your career there, end up hurting your foot your freshman year, so dealing with some injuries. So I want to take a little bit of time to talk about that. a lot of girls struggle with that transition from high school to college,I also got injured my freshman year. It can be super tough. You're adjusting to weight training and a new cadence and a new diet, new everything. So looking back on that experience, what is some advice you would have to girls about to head into college?

Nikki

  Yeah, Freshman year was really hard. Cause like I'll you said , it's a huge adjustment and change. And  I showed up and I think within the first week I broke my foot it wasn't just like, Oh stress factor.  I had to get surgery and  I was on crutches and in a boot and it was just  a long recovery and just really hard. I was missing my parents, I was missing my family. I was in a different state and that was just a really hard time in my life. I think when you're injured and when anyone gets injured,  know that this isn't permanent and there is going to be a day when you're healthy again. And you just have to really focus on  putting yourself first and prioritizing your mental health.  It was definitely hard  but I really leaned into all my freshmen teammates that were there. We had a big class come in and there were also a bunch of new people that had transferred in. And it was just this big community of like 10 or 13 of us that were brand new. in your Eugene and trying to figure it out. So , we really got along and we leaned into each other. You know, anytime you can find people that are going through a similar transition, I think that's really important. Anyone you can find common ground with, it definitely is helpful. 

Stef

 Absolutely and you know, when you sit out a sport like that and you're on the sidelines, you think about what else do you have in your life that is meaningful? And I think for you, that was part of your turning point when you decided to come out to some of your friends at University of Oregon. So can you talk about how maybe the injury led you to having a bit more time on focusing on yourself and then how that led to you  speaking up a little bit more about who you are?

 Nikki

 Yeah,  my senior year of high school, I actually got injured as well. And  that was really hard. Cause you know, I wanted to go out with a bang and win the state title again, but I think that's when those feelings started to surface like your sexuality or questioning,  okay do I actually like my boyfriend or like what it's like? freshman year, it was a whole nother year of where I could have pushed those feelings down or lied to myself in a way. But I was like, I can't do this anymore, it's time.  The fear of coming out, which was kind of, I think what was making me bird, those feelings definitely got smaller than the fear of like, Oh my gosh, I might be in the closet, the rest of my life. When that fear out weighed the other one, then that's when I was ready to come out. And I remember telling my freshman year roommate, and she was very supportive and, you know, we really connected because when, anytime you're vulnerable with someone , it kind of opens the door to Them being vulnerable with you. And it was just such a good conversation. I felt so loved and appreciated, that it just made me want to tell more and more people. So I opened up to a few more of my teammates and you know, it felt really good, because these were the people that were helping me through this hard year. And then it was also really cool to confide in them, in something that I  had never told anyone. And so, yeah, I think that was kind of when I first started coming out. And then it's kind of funny because after two years at Oregon, I ended up transferring to Arkansas.

And then my first year, Arkansas, I feel like I went backwards. Like I went back in the closet and I didn't really tell anyone or the people that knew, knew, but we didn't really talk about it. And it was just kind of a confusing time of like, I'm kind of halfway on the closet, halfway still in. 

Stef

why do you feel like you went backwards a little bit there in that transition from one school to the next? 

 Nikki

 Think it was again fear and being from California and going to school in Oregon, I didn't know anything about the South or what they would think of me or how I would be accepted. And so I just kinda like put my head down and focused on running. But at the end of the day, it is who you are and  running is such a mental sport. And  you have to show up. When you're on the line, there's already so much to think about like, how fast am I going to run , how am I going to win this race? having your sexuality that you haven't even unpacked in the back of your mind is definitely gonna hinder you. So that wasn't really a good plan to put my head down and focused on running because you know that first year at Arkansas was probably the worst year of my career as terms of PRS or accolades or things that I've done. And so, it was kind of at the end of that year, the summer of 2016 when I was like, okay, I need to come out more publicly. And ever since then, I've just felt More and more free and myself , ever since, 

 Stef

 but that was the year that you told your parents. And I want to talk a little bit about  what your approach was , what did you do? What'd you say? And what were some of those fears? 

 Nikki

  It was summer of 2016, and I had a girlfriend at the time.  We had both not come out to our parents. And so we decided like one day we were going to do it together. she was going to tell her parents and I was going to tell mine. And you know, then at the end of the day, no matter what happened, like we had each other. And I think that was really helpful for me to just know okay, this person's going to love me after this, no matter what. And  I don't know what I was afraid of, my parents are from Santa Cruz, California. They're the most chill people and accepting, loving people in the world. I think I knew they were gonna accept me and love me, I was just afraid of how they would say it? I think the fear was , Just saying it out loud, which I had done before, but obviously not to my parents. But , once I did it, I just felt such a weight was lifted. And we had once again such a good conversation and they were like, you know we love you we were so happy that you felt comfortable with us to share this. Then we started sharing,  my mom started telling stories about how, when I was younger and , she's like, you know, I kind of had an idea, maybe you're kind of a tomboy. We were just joking about, , kind of like them knowing all along, and it was a good conversation. And so, you know, all those fairs were very irrational. I think I was honestly more afraid to tell Certain teammates at Arkansas. I had this irrational fear of okay, well, if I come out, they won't let me change in the locker room. Or if we travel to meet, I won't be able to  room with anyone, which was totally not the case at all. And it went over very smoothly and it also helps that my girlfriend at the time was also on the team with me. So, once again, it was like we had each other, no matter what happened. definitely some irrational fears with coming out, but still it is scary to show up as yourself.

 

Stef

 For sure. I love what you said about you went in there, also with somebody by your side, in a way with your girlfriend,  even if they're not there with you in the room. So I think that's great advice. 

Amidst of you coming out more fully to your family and  becoming really more open about your sexual identity, you ended up having your senior year at Arkansas was a pretty big season. So did you think that  coming out and talking more openly about who you were, affected your running? And if so, how did that really show up in your day to day?

Nikki

 So I came out in the summer of 2016 and then I would say 2017 that whole next year I took off. And you know, I felt  more comfortable in my own skin and I could be really public about my relationship. And I don't know I felt, like finally for the first time, people were seeing me how I had seen myself.  And yeah, I mean kind of, like I said,  running is hard and working out is hard. And so when you're on the track, in a hard workout or a long run or even a race, you only want to be focusing on that. And so I finally, for the first time I was like, okay, I can just focus on this because I am being true to myself and other areas of life. 

Stef

 it's not easy to actually get there either.  all of us have fears in our lives about showing who we truly are. And  that doesn't have to just be about sexual identity or sexual orientation. Give you about a lot of different things that you might be scared to talk about, but using your voice like that and expressing who you are and what you're about. I do think in general, Puts you in a great position to have success in your life. But , with that openness and sharing your point of view or sharing who you are, can sometimes bring out comments from other people who might not believe in what you believe in. So did that happen to you? How have you handled any sort of negative responses to who you are as a person? 

Nikki

 Yeah, that's a really good question.  there were a few instances in Arkansas that made me feel really unsafe and , I had a teammate kinda tell me one time or it kind of like got around word of mouth.

She was telling other teammates that she thinks me and my girlfriend are going to go to hell and she really wants to have a conversation with us about that. Cause she was really religious and I was just like, let's like sit down and talk about this. let unpack  it. And so,  we ended up getting coffee and talking about it. And at the end of the day, like she was doing it because she loves me and cared about me. And, you know, I wanted to have this conversation with her because I loved her and cared about her. And maybe she has a son or daughter one day and they're gay. And , she could remember this conversation we had.  You know, we, we ended up leaving the meeting, if you will,  better friends than going into it. So having these hard conversations has been, I think really transformative and my confidence in who I am and , being willing to sit down and talk to someone , I dunno. I think it's important, especially now to be able to do that and find common ground  on certain things. And obviously on social media behind a screen, it's a bit harder to have a rational conversation with some of these trolls. But my mom, I was talking to her about it. And she gave me this quote and she's like , those who mind don't matter and those who matter won't mind. And that has really  helped me deal with any negative feedback or comments and things like that. 

 Stef

 I think that's such an important lesson, sounds like an amazing mom.  You've gone through your experience in college and in pro-life, you know, let's talk a little bit about maybe giving some advice to the coaches and to the owners of some of these pro teams , that are trying to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. What would you tell coaches today about how to create an inclusive team culture for athletes?   

Nikki

  In order to have a successful team in any sport, it's about really creating a safe space.  So just being kind and respectful to any and all your athletes and I think just never assuming a homogenous environment. Like never assume that everyone on your team is straight or cisgendered. Not stereotyping is also huge  to not get into like, Oh, let me guess that person's sexuality because of what they look like. Because the truth is you don't look like a sexuality. using inclusive language, little things, like putting your pronouns in your email bio, or like , your bio on social media, just to kind of be like, this is a safe space for all and kind of normalize using pronouns. even seeking out diversity inclusion, training, I think, , you can learn things that you never knew were a thing. Or maybe you were doing things that, Oh, wow this is kind of not inclusive and I didn't even know it. So  I feel like that's my list, my go to how to make a safe space. 

Stef

 Yeah and I want to touch on the language piece for a minute because when we first met about the importance of inclusive language. And so, you know, certain things can be really small things that actually can add up over time.  It's important as owners, as coaches of teams to really be careful of your language.  you want to talk a little bit about that sort of subtle but important piece of language?

 Nikki

Ueah, it was when me and my girlfriend were on the team together and our coach was like, Oh, where's your roommate. I was like, you mean my girlfriend? just little things like, that, like you said, it's like, you can say girlfriend, or you can say partner, Cause then for me, like whether he meant it in a mean or harsh way at all,  I'm going to internalize it and be like, Oh my gosh, she doesn't accept me. Or he's not on board with this or whatever it is when maybe who knows maybe he was even talking about my other roommate. Like I took it as something, maybe it wasn't. Inclusivity and using language like that, it goes a long way. Even if it's very little,  things. 

 Stef

 Absolutely, so let's talk about  your experience in transitioning to another university mid career in division one athletics because I think that  a lot of girls actually face this challenge because you make decisions sometimes so early about what school you're going to go to. 

And in some cases, people commit like freshman year of high school to the college. They're going to go.  I think people sometimes may feel stuck like at the school they're in. So  you transferred and you did that successfully and you had some injuries in there, but then you went on to be  a super successful division, one athlete and then onto the pros.

So it didn't ruin your career.  

So tell us a little bit about the reason  you transferred and  what advice you would have to girls that are maybe considering to transfer.  

Nikki

 First off there's nothing wrong with transferring , it's an option for a reason.

And , like you said, you could be really young and you pick a school and you think it's going to look  one way and that it looks completely different. Which was honestly the reason I transferred. I kind of had speed goggles for Oregon. And I was just, you know, I would watch all the Steve Prefontaine movies and I was like, I'm going to go there and be the next Steep Prefontaine and they had all the cool Nike gear. Like I was just kind of going there for the wrong reasons. and when I showed up, , it wasn't at all like that. It was rainy all the time and I was really hurt and really sad. I spent my whole first year redshirted the whole year because of my injury.

And I remember after that year, I really wanted to transfer and I was talking to my parents about it and, you know, they were like, okay, give it one more year. you haven't even raced in the uniform yet. we hear you, but let's just give it one more shot, actually competing for them. And then we'll see how you feel after that year.  Which I think was really good advice because my second year there, I finally got to travel with the team and see things I didn't see when I was redshirting. but eventually after my sophomore year, I still wanted to transfer and it still was something in the back of my mind.

So then I did it and it was scary because I was like, this is a big change and, I dunno, , I wanted to do it and I just  followed my gut and You know, I think it was a really good decision. And, , once you transfer you can't transfer again. I don't know if that rule has changed, but when I was an athlete.

And so it was just kind of, when I got to Arkansas, you know, there were things about Arkansas that were way better about Oregon. And then there were also things that I missed about Oregon when I was Arkansas. So it was kind of like, you're always going to have this idea of Oh, the grass could be greener somewhere else. But I think once I was at Arkansas. I was like, okay, I'm going to make this work because I have to, I can't transfer again. Basically,  no college is perfect. But you know, trust your gut. And if your guts telling you to leave, like maybe you should and experience new things and yeah. So I'm glad it all worked out.

 Stef

 How do you have that conversation with your coach? The one that you're leaving? 

Nikki

 that's a hard one conversation. And I know  a lot of my peers have transferred and a lot of people have very different stories about how it went down. You know, sometimes the coach is very understanding and is like, okay, let me help you connect you with other coaches and universities, I think would be a good fit for you.

And other times , when it's like a really good athlete leaving or, they really had a connection with that athlete, , it's sad cause it's like a breakup.   Coaches that are professional are going to handle it  in a professional way because it is a business and a job. But yeah, I've definitely heard of some immature coaches out there. But, you know, then you're like, okay, wow. I made the right choice in leaving them.

Stef

  Well, and the grass is always greener, you always have that sort of like mine,  a very natural human tendency to think, which is why you're right. It's so important to ground yourself in what the things are that are really important to you and make sure that this new place you're going has those things. And then go and prepare knowing that there's probably going to be one or two things Worse than the situation you're in. But what really matters to you and , thinking through that, I think is so important. 

Nikki

definitely. 

Stef

 Okay. So you finished your career in college at university of Arkansas. Have some amazing results and that sort of then transitions you into your professional life. so I want to talk about that transition. You know, we talked a little bit about high school to college, but what was it like going from college to pro and what advice do you have for girls that are about to cross over to that next stage of their life? 

Nikki

 Yeah, that was quite the transition. And I don't think I was expecting it to be, I think I was like, Oh, this will be similar to high school to college.

 But it was wild how much free time I've found that I had. Because in college you're training and you're at school and you have all  of  this homework and these essays to write and things like that. But, you don't have that once you're pro it's just like eat, sleep, breathe, and run.

And that was really hard for me because I feel like I've kind of always been this balanced person that really leaned into school. And  in high school I was a part of ASB. I was senior class president, I was involved in SAC in college a little bit. So it was just like, All of that's gone and it's just like creating this new structure and change for your life. But I adjusted and I'm fine. I love it now.  I think once again, I just had to trust my gut. There were certain groups or companies that I was debating on signing with. And , I had a really good fit with Adidas and the coach that was out here starting a group and it was in San Diego. So, back in California where I'm from. But  at the end of the day just being like, okay, what feels right in my gut and then going there .And yeah, it was definitely a transition though.  

Stef

 what do you feel like are the most important qualities to be successful as a pro athlete?

 Nikki

 I think like I kind of said to be a good pro athlete,  you have to have balance in your life and know, running isn't everything and  running isn't your identity. It's just  your job. so I would say balance and then , still having the love for it. Because it is all of a sudden you are getting paid, which is such a bizarre transition from doing a sport that you love to now I'm making a living off of this.

 But I think never losing sight of ,  when you were a little girl and when you fell in love with this sport, and you do it because you love it..  I would say just  finding your, why, which is kind of similar to, you know, what you love the sport. But, , for me, , that's kind of been really leaning into this LGBTQ community and, I feel like I'm representing something bigger than just myself.

And that's really helped me on like,  those days when the workouts are really hard or like. It's a long run and it's rainy and I don't want to do it by myself or things like that. It's just kind of remembering your why and why you're doing it.

Stef

   Knowing your, why that's a gift. and I  feel like that started to kind of come forward for you , in Boston, at the Adidas boost games, when you cross the finish line at first place and you draped the pride flag over your shoulders.

 And Adidas, your sponsors got behind you , and  shared that powerful moment through imagery and supporting you. Can you tell us  about how you felt at that moment. And the power of using your voice to  stand up for a bigger purpose and a bigger group of people. 

 Nikki

 Yeah that was really special. And I feel like, kind of, like you said, that I found my why once I was a professional runner. And it was definitely  really special, because  usually in track and  field, when you win a race, you get draped in your country's flag. And I had done a post I won the U S roadmap championships a month before that and they joined me in American flag.

And I was like, , I think my dream one day would be to be draped in  the rainbow flag, That was like my post or whatever. And then , someone that worked at Adidas saw it and they're like, okay, if Nikki wins the boost games, Let's Stripe her in a rainbow flag. And it was really cool because first of all, I was like, well, thank God I won. But it was really cool cause it was like, okay, wow, , this was a dream of mine. And, and now it's happening. And it was on a nationally televised meet and then Adidas posted it to their 30 million followers on Instagram. So it was a big moment because it was so visible and, that was something that was like really driving me to perform while it was like, I want to be seen.. You know that Bernay Brown quote, it's not about winning. It's not about losing it's about , just showing up and being seen. And , I felt like that was so important because , if I was younger and I had seen that who knows,  maybe I would have come out earlier or maybe I would've gone to the prom with a girl, who knows?

So I think visibility and representation was so important. And I know how important that is. So that's why I was  so special to me.

 Stef

 Absolutely the power of visibility, the power of role models. That's why we created VIS and it's also why you're a VIS League member. You know, you are going to be that role model for the next girl.

And I think that is so powerful.  You mentioned when we first met that you didn't really have a lot of role models growing up that you felt like you could relate to. And so I'd love to talk to you about the importance of role models and what you hope to be and do for younger girls.  

Nikki

 Yeah, You know, we were kind of talking about women in sport. But I couldn't really remember any queer women in sport that I,  looked up to growing up.  and now, , you have Meghan Rapinoe  and then you have Adam Ripon and like all these queer athletes who are really showing representation. And I think it's so important if you're in a position to come out, to come out, because like, there's also more than one way to be gay.it's not just like me, it's  my girlfriend, Emma or Megan Rapinoe. Like there's different flavors of being queer.

And  that's so important too, because , maybe someone doesn't really identify with me or my story, but  with someone else they're like, Oh, okay , Yeah, I relate to them. And so I just hope  in meeting , with you or anyone listening, young girls that, I can, , just be  one sample of what it's like to be a queer athlete.  And know that there's, there's more than one way to be gay and that , I'm excited to get vulnerable because I think there's power in vulnerability and yeah, I'm really excited just to  live my life. And if that means being a mentor,  or a role model , then that's cool. 

Stef

 Well, what other areas are you passionate about when it comes to advocacy? Because I think that the minute you sort of stand up and start speaking for more people and more broadly like you are doing now, which is so inspiring to see. I'm sure there's a flood of other things that you're like, I'm passionate about this, I'm passionate about that. So can you talk about what those other areas are and you know, what are you doing to drive change in those spaces? 

Yeah. So I think, as a queer athlete with some sort of a platform I feel like I have this privilege and a responsibility, to do my part in raising up voices that are,  underrepresented like the black community the trans community. And  it is so important to me to use my platform to do that. And this past summer I put on a race with the Trevor Project to raise money for suicidal LGBTQ youth. And that was really impactful. And I really loved partnering with them and doing that whole project and just encouraging runners,  gay, straight allies,  to just come together and  run and  raise money for this incredible organization. I approached the Trevor Project, it wasn't like them coming to me.  I think it's important for me when I find something that I'm passionate about, I'm going to share, or I'm going to raise money because I'm passionate about this. so  just  continuing to use my platform for things like that and raising those voices  for underrepresented groups is  definitely something that I try to do in my advocacy.

Yeah. That's amazing. 

And it is so important to use your voice. And the great thing is a lot of girls can do that too. what advice would you give the young girls that are out there sitting at home, maybe without a big platform yet, you know, they don't have a ton of followers, but they're super passionate about supporting other underrepresented voices. what would your advice be to kind of tip toe into advocacy?

Nikki

 Beginner, advocater. Use your voice, your platform. Even if you have a hundred followers, you know, maybe you will inspire someone that has never seen that or thought of that before. Cause your voice is powerful and you never know who's listening.  But also know when to , not use your voice when to just kind of, okay. It's not my turn to talk. You know, I'm going to listen. AndI think we saw a lot of that this summer with the black lives matter movement.

And I think that's super important to learn and because I mean, straight stories have been told, like white stories have been told. It's time to listen to other people. I would say use your voice, but , know when to , not use your voice as well.

 Stef

 there's power in that silence and sometimes there's power in speaking up. So I think  they're both powerful tools. So , where do you go from here?  you're preparing for the Olympics. We'll find out later this summer , if you're going. But you must be working hard. So tell us a little bit about your training routine right now. And how does the mental health and sports performance, sports psychologist. How does that   come into your  weekly routine? 

 Nikki

 that's a really good question. The trials are in June, so  it's   six months of putting your head down and training , but that can be exhausting at times, physically and mentally.

So I'm really leaning into my mental health just like, I take care of my body, roll out and stretch and NormaTec and things like that. But I also meditate and journal and talk to my therapist. Cause I think it's just as important to treat mental health, like physical health and, when you're depressed or anxiety, like treat it like an injury. And you know, it just needs a little extra care and time, , there's nothing wrong with that.  I just kinda started sharing about  my mental health on social media.  Cause you know, 2020 was really hard and I went through a lot of life changes and , I was really,  struggling and I just thought like, okay, I'm sure others are struggling as well. So I just kind of shared what I was going through and , it really took off And you know, it kind of opened the floodGates of, okay, we need to talk about this more and, and it's okay to not be okay. And I'm thinking of another Bernay Brown quote. It's something like the two most powerful words when we're in struggle or me too, you know?

And so I think that was really kind of something that I found when I started talking about mental health. It was like so many women or athletes were like, Oh my gosh, me too. And so that was really powerful. And , I'm not an expert at all about mental health, but I do think it is important just to share and be vulnerable and talk about it.

If anything

Stef

   absolutely. And de-stigmatize  like, it is okay to go. See somebody and we need to talk about it as a society so that more girls and boys think it's normal to do it's so important. So it's definitely a big, big focus for us at Voice In Sport. And I love to hear that that's  part of what you do.

So take us to, 20, 20, what was like the top piece of advice that got you through it. because I think we're all going and true stuff. What's  one tip that you would pass on to a young girl in sport right now, you know to kind of get through the rest of COVID.

Nikki:

 I think it was kind of early on. Once again, I was talking to my mom. I always talk to my mom. I'm like, I'm struggling. She said, I think she was reading this book about Buddhism and, you know, it was just the idea that like, everything is impermanent and  this is going to pass and things like that, that got me through my injury.

Like there will be a day when  you're healthy and running again. And so it's like, this is impermanent as much as it sucks. And then as long as it's been, like it is gonna pass and you know, maybe we're going to be stronger or different because of it in a good way. Well, 

Well this has been an amazing conversation. I would love to end it on just a few pieces of advice for the girls in sport out there. So in thinking about our conversation today about authenticity, What is one piece of advice you would give to female athletes who would like to come out, but who are struggling to talk about their sexuality?

 sometimes showing up as your true self can be really scary and really terrifying  but it's always worth it. And  I've found in my own experience that. It's definitely less terrifying than  the idea of staying in the closet or not being your true self.

 I said it earlier, but once I was open and honest,  my times took off and  my running really  took off and that's not a coincidence at all. just don't be afraid to be herself, even if it is really scary. 

 Stef

 Okay. And then, because Voice In Sport is all about trying to change the game. In the sports industry, what is one thing that you would like to see changed for the future of women's sports? 

Nikki

 It's such a good question.  You know I kind of said earlier, as a member of the LGBTQ community,  I feel like I have a privilege and a responsibility to speak up, fortrans people. And  I think sports should be a place for everyone. And I think right now it's not. And I really think, you know, trans women are being discriminated against and, I don't have all the answers, but , I feel like I do have this responsibility to try to, you know, let's, see change. And I would just love for the culture and narrative of trans women in sports , to change and for everyone to just be open-minded and kind, and just really dive into trying to make sport a place for all. Because that's what it is, it should be a place, a melting pot of different cultures and races and gender identities and sexualities. And so I think right now, that's my number one and like what I want to see change in women's sports. 

 Stef

 I think that is incredible. And what that's going to take is more storytelling. It's going to be more visibility. Especially we need to see more positive images of trans athletes shown in the media because I do think that that's one of the biggest ways we can all contribute and help drive things forward. So for any underrepresented group out there that is what we hope to do at VIS. And we hope to tell more of those stories over the coming months. So, Nikki, thank you so much for, coming on our podcast and we are going to be cheering you on, on the sidelines over the next couple weeks.

Nikki

 Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I love this conversation and I love what you guys are doing at Voice In Sport. I'm so happy to be a member now.   

Stef

 Nikki, your authenticity is so admirable and we really appreciate everything that you shared with us today. And we're so proud that you're using your voice and your platform to drive change and help others realize the power of being open-minded. Here at Voice In Sport, we're going to be with you every step of the way on your Olympic journey and on your advocacy journey.

You can follow Nikki on Instagram at Nikki Hilts and on Twitter at Nikki underscore Hilts if you would like to follow her and her team's performance leading up to the Olympics, check them out. They are the mission athletics club. Please subscribe to the Voice In Sport podcasts and give us a rating.

You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tik TOK at Voice In Sport. And if you're interested in joining our community as a member, you have access to exclusive content, mentorship from amazing female athletes like Nikki, and advocacy tools. Check out Voice In Sport.com. And if you're passionate about accelerating sports, science and research on the female athletic body, check out Voice In Sport foundation.org to get involved.

See you next week.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creators™ __________________ and Anya Miller

Nikki Hiltz, Professional Runner, discusses her journey in sport; coming out to friends, family, and teammates; the ins and outs of transferring schools; and her advice for staying grounded as a pro runner.