OUTrunners - Meet Nikki Hiltz and Therese Haiss
OUTrunners, meet Nikki Hiltz and Therese Haiss! They are professional runners for Adidas, teammates on The Mission Athletic Club based in San Diego, a loving couple, and most importantly two insanely kind and caring individuals. These two are stars destined for greatness not only because of their incredible athletic abilities but because they’ve been given a platform and THEY ARE RUNNING WITH IT!
If you are not familiar with the competitive collegiate running system via the NCAA just know that it is incredibly hard to stand out and be known and seen as a formidable force in your specialty/event. The level of talent in women’s running has been consistently on the rise for the last decade, and the NCAA scene has hosted a substantial amount of those performances. Hiltz and Haiss accomplished what few talented high school runners do; they successfully transitioned into a dominant Division I program and made their presence known. We won’t cover individual stats (because they have a lot of them), but the pair was a force on the track. Not only did they secure multiple NCAA indoor and outdoor championships appearances, but they notched a 5th and 6th place finish in the indoor mile, two consecutive runner-up finishes in the 1,500m outdoor championships (Hiltz), and indoor DMR National Champion status (Haiss). To say they thrived at the University of Arkansas is an understatement.
Hiltz and Haiss met competing against each other in high school, quickly became best friends, supportive teammates, accomplished athletes, and after graduating went on to sign their first professional contracts with Adidas. Now, in their first year as professional athletes Hiltz and Haiss have been given another opportunity to stand up and rise. As one of the very few (if not the only) same sex couples competing in the elite running circuit, they have been given a platform to make a difference. As their success continues to grow so does their ability to reach the masses through social media, specifically the LGBTQ+ community, and to promote more diversity and inclusion in running.
We had an opportunity to sit down with the couple at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Hiltz was fresh off a thrilling performance in the 1,500m where she took 3rd and secured herself a spot on the World Championship team headed to Doha this September.
As we talked through that race it was obvious that Hiltz’s level of excitement (read: total hype-ness) for the result was equally matched by Haiss. Hiltz walked us through the last 100 meters of the race. As she rounded the last turn she found herself surrounded by a pack of strong women all fighting to the finish for that coveted top 3 position. “Watching the race over again, because it’s posted everywhere, I didn’t even realize the moves that I made… when it’s happening it’s all instincts and I’m just so glad my instincts were good” Hiltz stated with a laugh. If you haven’t seen the race, Hiltz found herself boxed in with a hundred meters to go and made a strategically bold but brave move by sneaking inside between another athlete and the rail to slide into the top three. She mentioned that she never makes that kind of move, but after seeing another athlete get disqualified for making a similar move in the preliminary round (however, she impeded another runner while Hiltz made no contact) she had a conversation with her coach about when you can and cannot pass on the inside. Having not had that conversation with her coach the day before, Hiltz said she would not have made that move and likely would not have made the team. In fact, when describing the entire weekend, Hiltz said that it felt as though everything was just “meant to be.” Besides making her first World’s team, her finish time of 4:03.55 is an Olympic standard for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which puts her in position to possibly make her first Olympic team next year.
Equally as important as this weekend’s result is that Hiltz had one of her biggest supporters and training partners, Haiss, right there with her as she accomplished what one can only describe as a dream come true.
Haiss took us through her thoughts during the last straightaway of the race, “ I just knew, I knew from the beginning. I’ve watched Nikki race so many races, and this was really similar to the NCAA final just with having so many women present with a lap to go essentially and moves being made. This is the first time that I watched her not fade and then come back within the last lap… you run out of track when you have that fading moment, and so I knew she was going to get third”. So, onwards they go. Hiltz will head to Peru in early August to compete as part of Team USA at the Pan Am Games. Then she heads to Doha in late September to compete at the World Championships. Haiss will be competing on August 2nd at Sir Walter Miler in North Carolina, then heading to compete in two road miles later this month (Pittsburgh Liberty Mile and Guardian Mile in Cleveland).
Throughout our entire conversation with the couple, it was continuously obvious just how much support and respect the two shared for each other. Despite having to frequently race against each other as competitors in the same event, the two remain each other's biggest fan. Much of our conversation touched on how they maintain a healthy balance between being partners, but also competitors. “You obviously want yourself to succeed and you want your partner to succeed as well, but if I were to have a bad race and Therese were to have a good one… I’m upset about myself obviously, but I succeeded because she did you know?”, says Hiltz. When asked what their advice is for training and racing with your significant other, Haiss chimed in, “ I think the communication piece is huge… communication around the clock.” The two agree that they complement each other well; where one of them is weak the other is strong. The love and admiration these two have for one another withstands and surpasses those difficult moments when things can get frustrating or complicated due to the nature of their athletic careers.
“We both just love running...When you have this mutual love for something it connects you”, Hiltz told us. That mutual passion for the sport mixed with the level of success the two were achieving at a young age steered the two to their first encounter at an elite high school track meet. From there, the road lead to choosing to run at the same college, first at the University of Oregon before they both eventually transferred to Arkansas. The transition from running in college to running professionally is a big one, and most individuals tend to struggle to find their stride in that first year, something both Addie and myself learned our first year. Haiss touched on her experience and said “Right after College it’s not typical to just be crushing it and I’ve kind of been going through that a little bit. I’ve talked to so many people who have told me no you’re actually doing really well… and people are telling me their stories. Our peers from college, I’m messaging them and they are like 'me too, girl!' I think having our relationship and our love for running...you have that support and understanding of knowing what they’re going through everyday. I’ve had some good races and training has been better for me this year than ever before and I would definitely credit that to the consistency which comes from being partners and competing in the same event,” Haiss told us.
Touching on the subject of competing at such a high level while trying to accept your sexuality, Hiltz explained to us that it was hard at first, but that deciding to be open and transparent about her sexuality was completely worth it. “I was suppressing this thing. My family is so supportive, but even with that I just didn’t want to be gay. I wanted to be normal… I didn’t want to come out. Therese was the first person I ever came out to, and I said 'Ok, I’m just going to tell you this… I think I’m gay.' Therese was just like ‘Ok, cool’.” she stated while laughing. Hiltz started small, telling Haiss and a few of her teammates at the University of Oregon before she transferred to Arkansas. It wasn’t until after Hiltz and Haiss started dating, while attending Arkansas, that she decided to come out to the world. “After that my running took off, the positive feedback I was getting, the confidence in myself, it felt like a weight was lifted… It’s crazy how so much can come from just being honest with yourself”.
Hiltz and Haiss are the epitome of a power couple in the running world. They may be young and newly minted professional athletes, but they understand the power of the platform they’ve been given. People look up to them, are inspired by them, and are encouraged by their authenticity to perhaps make that move to be more open, themselves. Given the current climate of today's society, it’s a big responsibility, something Addie reminded both of them as we chatted. “I feel like I’m so inspired and empowered by all of the positive feedback I’ve been getting, but I don’t know what to do with it, yet. I think for now just keep being seen. Terrance, our coach, says the faster you run and the more races you win the more people you’re going to reach… there’s power in visibility” Hiltz told us. Haiss has some big ideas for ways to give back and empower the LGBTQ+ community as well, “We talk about stuff all the time, I feel like we are doing a constant brain storm. We’ve talked about trying to put on a race in San Diego." Right now, Haiss explains that it’s all just words and ideas, but they are being intentional and thoughtful about how they want to use their platform to do more and reach more people.
Haiss explained to us that she really takes into consideration the important role she has when people are reaching out to her via social media, “I do have people reaching out to me, both runners and just friendly people who want to support [us] and I think feel supported back”. She takes the time to reach back out to them or follow up just to make sure they know they’ve been heard. Addie asked them if it felt like it's a burden to carry, having so many people look to them for support and help in navigating their own decisions to live openly or come out. “I don’t want to use the word responsibility; I feel like it’s an opportunity… It’s not something I take lightly” Hiltz stated. Addie and I walked away from our conversation feeling hopeful and inspired. They may be young, but they understand the impact they are having on the LGBTQ+ and running communities.
Nikki and Therese are thriving right now, and better yet they are paving the way for others to thrive. After spending just a short amount of time around the couple, it’s easy to see why. They both exude a special glow that only comes from being happy and content with who you are and what you are doing in this world. Positive change is coming, and it has a lot to do with brave athletes like these two who are willing to be open, transparent, and real. So, Therese and Nikki - on behalf of the OUTrun community, we thank you!