Nikki Hiltz: How this pro runner is making her sport more inclusive

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CNN

Running in stillness, in those spaces between footsteps when both feet are in the air and flying for a millisecond, Nikki Hiltz has figured out their gender identity.

Ever since Hiltz ran barefoot on the beach as a child while participating in lifeguard training, running has seeped into nearly every aspect of their lives, becoming a career that has taken them to world championships.

So when all of their races were canceled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hiltz hosted their own, naming it Pride 5k to create space for LGBTQ people and raise money for The Trevor Project – an organization non-profit providing 24/7 crisis counseling to LGBTQ youth.

“I was open about my sexuality at the time, but not about my gender identity,” Hiltz told CNN Sport.

“And so I think deep down I was just a closeted queer person, trying to create a safe space for people to come out as [themselves] and kind of subconsciously creating this space for me to show up as myself.

Hiltz says nearly 2,000 people attended the inaugural Pride 5k from various locations and at least four people used the day to come out publicly as queer, later recording podcasts with Hiltz to share their stories.

“Something about hearing stories of coming out, or just connecting with someone who was hiding something and then being able to share it – that was really the last push I needed to be like : ‘OK, I think I’m ready to go out now,’” Hiltz says.

And, in what Hiltz calls a “full-loop moment,” they also came out publicly as transgender on March 31, 2021 – Transgender Awareness Day – just under nine months after that first Pride 5k run.

“This means I don’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth,” they wrote in an Instagram post explaining they were transgender. “The word I currently use to describe my gender is not binary. The best way I can explain my gender is that fluid.

“Posting this is both exciting and terrifying, but I am and always will be a firm believer that vulnerability and visibility are key to creating social change and acceptance. So here I am, once again, coming out of a closet to be my true, authentic self.

After graduating from high school, Hiltz got a scholarship to the University of Oregon, then transferred to run in Arkansas, where she placed second in the women’s 1,500 meters at the U.S. Championships. NCAA Division I athletics in 2017 and 2018.

These results secured Hiltz a professional contract and they qualified to represent Team USA at the World Championships in Athletics a year later.

After coming out as trans and non-binary, Hiltz continues to compete in the women’s division.

“As a non-binary athlete navigating a very gendered world of athletics, it’s easy to feel out of place,” Hiltz wrote in an Instagram post.

“For me, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to be the only person on the starting line using your pronouns.”

This summer, after running what they called their “worst race of the season” at the U.S. Championships and failing to qualify for the World Team, Hiltz reframed his goals and scored wins in multiple mile races.

Hiltz competes in the 1500m at the 2019 World Championships in Athletics.

Even through those peaks and troughs of life as a professional athlete, a core of pure joy and competitiveness Hiltz says they felt running as children as they built a community within the sport.

“I think runners have always been the weirdest people, but the friendliest and the best allies,” they say.

“I’ve only ever received support and love from my contestants when it comes to my gender and my sexuality, and I just knew it would be such an easy bridge to love, ‘OK, let’s parade the pride and 5k and combine them.

Alongside their partner, Hiltz set out to organize this merger of a race with Pride, which is finally being held with an in-person component in Flagstaff, Arizona for its third edition. Runners were still welcome to participate from remote locations if they preferred.

“You know, I don’t have to organize a race in person,” jokes Hiltz.

“I am a professional runner, not an event organizer, but [for] my partner and I, that’s our goal. So, we just figured it out as we go… There’s definitely been hiccups with bib orders or road closures, but that’s just another hurdle we have to overcome.

Olympic steeplechase runner Yemane Haileselassie won the Oct. 6 race in Flagstaff with a time of 14:22, while Dani Shanahan won on the women’s side in 16:52.

Non-binary race winner Breanna Cornell meanwhile told Hiltz that they would use their $2,000 check to help start a Trevor Project club at their high school, adding to the $37,000 the event raised. collected for the charity.

Hiltz and their partner during Pride 5k.

“Things like Pride can be very booze and party oriented, which is super fun. And obviously Pride offers a lot of representation,” Hiltz observes.

“But I think when you add in the trauma or addiction that so many LGBTQ people go through, it’s really great to provide a space where we celebrate pride, but we also get out and move our bodies and do something healthy and fun .”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is not yet possible to establish long-term trends in substance abuse among LGBTQ populations given the paucity of research, but the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2018 found that those who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual reported higher substance use than adults who identified as heterosexual.

But even as initiatives like Hiltz’s Pride 5k seek to make the sport more inclusive, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for transgender athletes — especially transgender women — to compete in categories consistent with their gender identity.

At the elite level, individual sports federations have adopted a range of policies towards transgender athletes since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its new non-legally binding framework in November 2021.

The IOC guidelines stated that no athlete should be excluded from competition on the assumption of an advantage due to gender variations or their transgender status and placed the responsibility on individual sports federations to determine whether an athlete enjoyed an advantage. disproportionate.

Some governing bodies such as the International Swimming Federation (FINA), the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and the International Rugby League (IRL) have chosen to restrict the participation of transgender women, while others, such as the FA German, allow transgender and non-binary women. players to choose a team.

Meanwhile, 18 U.S. states have sought to expand those bans, also banning transgender women and girls from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity in youth sports, according to data collected by The New York Times and the Human Rights Campaign.

“It’s really sad the way all these policies are adopted and pushed. And obviously, that’s just not a problem. I’ve never run with a trans woman in my life,” says Hiltz.

“And in Utah, there were four trans kids and only one of them was a trans girl,” they add, referring to a law passed in the state in March when GOP lawmakers struck down the Republican Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed a bill banning transgender people. women to compete in women’s and women’s sports teams.

Republican politicians have claimed that transgender women have physical advantages over cisgender women, although a 2017 report in the journal Sports Medicine that reviewed several related studies found “no direct or consistent research” on such an advantage.

“Why are we passing this whole law for this whole state when it affects a little girl who is just trying to play football with her friends?” Hiltz said.

“I think if you actually look at what’s going on, trans women aren’t dominating the sport and they’re literally trying to… participate, like any other kid who wants to play with their friends.”

Five months later, a Utah judge granted a preliminary injunction allowing transgender girls to compete on girls’ teams “only when fair, as determined confidentially by a commission established by the legislature.”

“We raise funds for The Trevor Project, which is a leading national organization for suicide prevention services, for LGBTQ youth,” adds Hiltz.

“And it’s no surprise that gay people have higher suicide rates when society says, ‘You can’t play sports or you don’t belong here. “”

Hiltz settled in before the start of the event.

The gender binary into which sport has traditionally been divided is being challenged by the growing visibility of non-binary, as well as transgender, athletes.

Since coming out as trans and non-binary last year, Hiltz has had conversations with race directors and advertisers to make the race more inclusive.

“When people who call the race mistake my gender and they apologize, I can’t just say, ‘Oh, no worries, it’s okay. Because it’s not,” they say.

“I think there’s definitely been some tough times with it. But, overall, the longer I’ve been away and the more people who know my pronouns and use them, it’s really rewarding.

This year, three marathon majors – Boston, London and Chicago – joined the New York Marathon in becoming the hottest races yet to add a non-binary division to their event schedules.

“You train for months, even years to [a marathon] and, at the very least, you should be able to register for the race that has the gender you are,” says Hiltz.

“I think it’s really powerful to see…and I think it’s just going to create space for more and more people to be themselves.”



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