By Karen Price | June 30, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

Nikki Hiltz competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 9, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

As a 1,500-meter runner, Nikki Hiltz has roughly four minutes to try to be perfect.

Being a professional athlete, she uses all the tools at her disposal to make that happen, including getting the right amount of training, sleep and nutrition.

But Hiltz, 25, has a bonus cylinder in the engine when she lines up at the start of a race, and particularly when she gets down to the last 100 meters and needs a little extra kick.

As an out gay athlete who’s become a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community, Hiltz said, she’s now running for something bigger than just herself.

“I was at a meet one time and this dad approached me right before the race and said, ‘I want you to know that my daughter just came out to me and she said she saw Nikki Hiltz do it and if she can be out and proud, so could she,’” said Hiltz, from Santa Cruz, California. “During that race I thought I’m doing it for more kids like that so more kids can see me. I feel like I have this superpower that none of my competitors have in that I have this whole community behind me and supporting me.”

It wasn’t always that way for Hiltz, who hopes to make her first Olympic team in 2021.

She knew from a young age that she was attracted to females, but that knowledge scared her. Hiltz didn’t want to be gay, so throughout high school she dated boys and hid her secret. She also kept running, winning the California state title in the 1,600 meters as a junior in 2012, and earned a partial scholarship to Oregon.

Once there, things changed. She broke her foot, and for the first time couldn’t use running as an outlet. The feelings she’d suppressed for so long bubbled to the surface at a time when she was not only away from home and in a new place with new people but also on a liberal campus where she saw same-sex couples walking around holding hands.

“No one was looking twice and I was like, ‘Oh this is a safe space. This is accepted here,’” she said. “It was a culmination of all those different things.”

Hiltz came out to her family in June of 2016.

“They were nothing but accepting,” said Hiltz, who by then had transferred to Arkansas, where she finished her college career. “If anything they were like, ‘We know. We’re so grateful you feel safe enough to tell us that. ’It was a really good conversation.”

A year later, after being out with her family and friends, Hiltz decided it was time to be out and open on social media as well. She had a girlfriend and wanted to share photos and have people like them and comment on what a cute couple they made.

She was also scared that might not happen.

“I care so much about what people think of me and I was terrified of the backlash and who was going to still be my friend,” she said. “But as soon as I did it it was like this flood of, ‘That’s awesome, ’and ‘I support you ’and ‘This doesn’t change anything. ’It was definitely such a relief. I also remember talking to my mom about it and she said this quote that I continue to use that those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

That Dr. Seuss quote wouldn’t be the last time her mom found just the right wisdom to share.

In June 2019 — it isn’t lost on Hiltz that so many pivotal moments have happened during Pride Month — she won the women’s mile event at the Boost Boston Games. Representatives from Adidas, which sponsors the event and Hiltz, draped her in a rainbow flag that they said they would have given her no matter what because they loved her and supported her.

“I was like, ‘Well I’m glad I won then,’” she said. “It was a very special moment. I never thought I’d be this out, proud athlete let alone an advocate, so it was a very surreal moment like, wow, not only are you openly gay but you’re standing for something and you’re being visible. It was a very euphoric moment.”

The next day Adidas posted the photo of Hiltz draped in the flag to the company’s Instagram account with a quote from her and the caption:“ Inspiring the next generation to be proud of who they are starts with showing them how. #LoveUnites.”

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The likes came, Hiltz said, but then so did the comments, which her girlfriend told her not to read.

“Of course I went on and read every single one,” she said.

There were rainbow flags and messages of support, but also thumbs down and even worse emojis, as well as threats to unfollow and never buy Adidas again and other hurtful, negative comments.

“When you live in a small, liberal bubble you forget all this hate is out there still, and even right now with what’s going on in the world,” Hiltz said. “All of a sudden everything I’d ever been insecure about was happening all at once, that fear that people aren’t going to accept me and there’s going to be backlash, and it happened.”

Once again, she turned to her mom to process it all and was offered a Theodore Roosevelt quote that it is not the critic who counts but the man in the arena. At the same time, the support started flowing in from all around.

“So many people reached out and said, ‘These comments are terrible, I hope you’re OK, you’re an inspiration, ’and it opened the door to so much positivity directed at me,” she said. “I had all these people behind me that loved and supported me and wanted me to keep being seen and being visible.”

One of Hiltz’s goals for 2020 was to make the U.S. Olympic Team. Another was to be the person she needed when she was younger; a Megan Rapinoe of the running world, she said.

Her Olympic dream may be on hold, but she’s still actively working toward the other. She had planned to donate all her earnings from races in June to the Trevor Project, the country’s leading nonprofit focused on suicide prevention amongst LGBTQ youth. Instead she’s hosting the first virtual Golden Coast Track Club Pride 5K, and the proceeds will go to the Trevor Project.

With Pride festivities also canceled throughout the country because of COVID-19, she said, she hopes the 5K will help give people a chance to celebrate and show young people that there’s a whole community ready to love and support them. She hopes that next year they can hold the race in person.

“It’s been a crazy year that no one could have predicted, but I really am proud of the person I’m becoming and that’s also what Pride is about,” she said. “For so many years I hated the fact that I was different, I hated the fact that I wasn’t straight and that’s why I hid it for so long. Now finally I’ve gone through the internal homophobia and worked through stuff and to finally love myself, and be proud of myself, that’s what Pride is all about.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.