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Can Nikki Hiltz's inspiring journey to the Paris Olympics change the narrative around transgender athletes in sports?

Nikki Hiltz’s coach, Mike Smith, is a key figure in the world of track and field, known for his exceptional coaching abilities. Smith has been instrumental in guiding Hiltz every step of the way, with his iron-clad backing. “Mike’s coaching philosophy is rooted in understanding each athlete’s unique strengths and challenges,” says Hiltz. As one of America’s top middle-distance runners, Hiltz has earned six NCAA Division-I All-America honors and finished as the runner-up in two 1500m NCAA championships. In 2023, Hiltz broke the American mile record with a time of 4:16.35.

Most recently, on June 30, Hiltz competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials, where they clocked the second-fastest time ever recorded by an American in the women’s 1500-meter race. Also, an advocate for queer visibility, Hiltz actively defends transgender rights. Recently, they moved to Arizona to train under Smith, whose expertise has already made a significant impact. Let us delve into the story of Mike Smith, exploring his background, coaching philosophy, and the bond that has propelled Hiltz to the pinnacle of track and field.

Meet Nikki Hiltz’s coach, Mike Smith

Mike Smith is a highly reputed running coach and has been the director of the cross-country track and field at Northern Arizona University since 2017. In fact, under his guidance, the men’s cross-country teams have won five NCAA Division I championships between the years 2017 and 2022. Smith is known to focus heavily on having synergy and sportsmanship between the team instead of focusing on the final result. 

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Poll of the day

What do you think is the most significant factor in Nikki Hiltz's success?

Coaching

Personal determination

Support system

Natural talent

Before his coaching career, Smith had a very successful running career himself. He competed for Wachusett Regional High school as well as the reputed Georgetown University. He has also worked as an elementary school teacher before earning a master’s degree. Other than Nikki Hiltz, he has also coached Woody Kincaid, Elly Henes, Luis Grijalva and Colin Sahlman. He was named the Big Sky Indoor Track and Field Coach for the year 2023-24 as well. 

The track star moved from San Diego to train under Smith

Nikki Hiltz moved from San Diego to Flagstaff, Arizona to train under coach Mike Smith. The move was motivated by Hiltz’s desire to train alongside runners Rachel Schneider and Elly Henes. They had previously traveled to Flagstaff to train for a few months, as is common for most middle distance runners and said about the experience, “It was super fun and chill, and we all just vibed so well together. I ended up running and working out with them for the rest of my time there.”

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Hiltz was also drawn in by Mike Smith’s philosophy and method of coaching. They also wanted to be aerobically strong, which is one of Smith’s specialities. Hiltz elaborated on the experience, saying, “I was drawn to the way [Smith] wanted to get to know me as a person before we even talked about training. He’s also a super cool and confident dude, and I think part of me is hoping that confidence and swag can rub off on me.”

For Hiltz, hopefully the move to Flagstaff will pay for them. Apparently, Mike Smith and his team also support Hiltz’s advocacy for LGTBQ+ rights and their representation in sports. This created an environment that was ideal for Nikki Hiltz to practice and reach their full potential.