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June 18, 2019

A Pride Month Ode to Nikki Hiltz and Therese Haiss

BOSTON – Why do we have Pride Month? The short and historical answer is that in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City and began to arrest its patrons, who were predominantly queer people of color. Rather than quietly and submissively comply, heroes like Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, and Marsha P. Johnson fought back. 50 years later, we commemorate these demonstrations with parades, parties, and social media posts celebrating our hard-fought access to what the patrons of Stonewall never had: the right to be ourselves in public.

I wish those ladies could have seen Nikki Hiltz storm down the bouncy, blue track in Copley Square last Sunday, crossing the finish line in first place then flying into the arms of her competitor, teammate, and girlfriend Therese Haiss, before being draped in a rainbow flag in front of hundreds of cheering spectators.

In 2019, being out and proud and a public figure is still an act of defiance. A casual scroll through the comments of the Instagram post from adidas congratulating Nikki on her victory revealed the brutally ugly side of a world that seems so distant when you’re in the middle of Boylston Street in Boston, where pride flags hang proudly in virtually every storefront. But those comments hit painfully close to home when they’re coming from the family, friends, and teammates of countless LGBTQ youth in communities that aren’t nearly as accepting. Those kids need a Nikki Hiltz.

You don’t necessarily think “fearsome competitors” when you meet these girls. At 5 feet, 4 inches, Nikki doesn’t necessarily tower over her rivals, and the first thing you’ll notice about her is her enormous smile and her easygoing, West Coast attitude. Therese (or just “T,” as Nikki calls her) is an easy person to make laugh and has strikingly beautiful eyes. But put either of them in a middle distance race with 200 meters to go and they’re going to get to the finish line first or die trying.

Their journey has not always been easy. Nikki, a high school standout from California, and Therese, an Ohio state champion, began their collegiate careers at the University of Oregon before transferring to the University of Arkansas. Therese was part of Arkansas’s winning DMR and team championship at the 2015 NCAA indoor championships, a monumental achievement as Arkansas was hosting the meet and had never before won a women’s team title. Nikki finished 2nd in consecutive NCAA outdoor 1500s, including in 2018 where she stormed back from injury, going from crutches to a runner-up finish at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in six weeks. Later that summer, she would make her second consecutive final in the USATF championships.

Nikki Hiltz and Therese HaissAs teammates, they grew from promising prospects into collegiate stars, finishing 5th in the DMR as teammates at the 2016 NCAA indoor championships and 5th and 6th in the mile, only three-hundredths of a second apart, at the 2017 edition of the meet.  Together, they combined to score 43 points over four years at NCAA championships for the Razorbacks.

This year, pretty much all they’ve done is win. In fact, Nikki has won six of her last seven races. And in her only non-winning effort, she set a two-second personal best to notch the 2019 world standard in the 1500 meters. Therese has done her fair share of winning as well, becoming something of a queen of the roads with victories in the State Street Mile and the Yakima Mile in the same week. Training under Terence Mahon and The Mission Athletics Club, they’ve ascended to a level that places them in the conversation with the best milers in the country. And with 2020 looming, their timing couldn’t be better.

When Chris and I interviewed Nikki for our crossover podcast in April, we talked extensively about the responsibility Nikki feels as a role model for other LGBTQ runners. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously, but one she handles with maturity, grace, and humor. She’s not one to shy away from addressing LGBTQ issues on social media and in interviews, but more often than not, she lets her legs do the talking. And boy, do they have a lot to say.

The sport needs more athletes like Nikki Hiltz and Therese Haiss. We’re not exactly getting positive headlines these days for the way we treat pregnant athletes, DSD athletes, or trans athletes. We have our work cut out for us. But by cheering for and celebrating athletes who represent marginalized groups, in good times and in bad, we can show the rest of the world the best of what athletics can be.

Athletes like Nikki and Therese are doing the hard work – putting in the training, competing with class, and winning races – and it’s up to us to give them the props they deserve. They’re proud and we’re proud of them.

Photo courtesy of Ben Weingart.

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