APTOS — Despite earning numerous records, championships and accolades during her four years on the Aptos’ High School track and field and cross country teams, 18-year-old Nikki Hiltz said she hopes that she leaves behind more than just numbers.
“Hopefully I leave behind more than just all these records. I hope that people will remember my personality, my mismatched socks and my love for my teammates.”
It’s the quirky things that have endeared Hiltz to people around the county. Whether it’s running all her races, since her junior year, with different color socks and shoes, because she said she believes it’s her good luck charm, or because she throws on a puffy light blue vest, reminiscent of Marty McFly, and a cowboy hat after her races.
But for Hiltz, none of this is showmanship.
It’s simply who she is.
The 2012 California Interscholastic Federation State Champion in the 1600-meters is a living, breathing, spark plug.
She constantly uses the fact that she is a state champion to win arguments. She loves to act like she’s a dinosaur with her teammate Claire Peabody while running at Nisene Marks in Aptos for practice and she even has a tattoo that her father, Tom, and mother, Liz, agreed to let her get.
Like her, the tattoo lacks no depth. It’s a simple six-letter word on her upper left back spelling Nisene. The location where Hiltz says running stole her heart.
“It’s the place where I fell in love with running,” said Hiltz. “Even if I never run again after college, or if something happens and it doesn’t work out, Nisene with always be the place where I fell in love with it. As a team and as an individual, I’ve just had so many great memories there, and I just want it to be permanently a part of me, and then it was.”
Like a badge of honor, Hiltz will always have that inked on her back.
She will also always have a screw lodged in her right foot.
After winning the CIF State Championship and setting the county record at 4 minutes, 42.45 seconds in 115 degree weather last year at Clovis, and being invited out to the Dream Mile in New York, the Nike Elite Camp in Oregon and Junior Nationals in Indiana, Hiltz suffered the biggest setback of her career. She had developed a stress fracture in her right foot towards the end of summer, an injury common in runners, said her coach Dan Gruber.
“You see this all the time. It’s just tough. I think it did get her frustrated, because every other athlete has their base of strength right now. She’s just barely getting back to full health, and that’s amazing, because you see this injury all the time, and it’s a full year injury, but for her to comeback this soon is incredible.”
The injury forced Hiltz to sit out the entirety of the cross country season, and miss a chance at a third Santa Cruz Coastal Athletic League and Central Coast Section title.
But that just made Hiltz hungrier in the end.
“I said it the very first day after surgery ‘I’m going to win the state championship again this year.’ I even wrote it in my room. June 1st.”
Although Gruber has confidence that Hiltz can win it all once again this year, he also understands that she’s not going to be at her top form.
“She is the best mid-distance runner that this county has ever seen, but they’re not going to get to see her at her best. Just wait until next year. She’s going to show what she has and she’ll have an excellent career in college.”
During December last year, Hiltz announced that the she would be following her dreams at the University of Oregon. She turned down Stanford, Oklahoma State, Washington and Arizona State, to become a Duck, and follow in her mother’s footsteps, who also went to college in Eugene.
She’ll be in the center of track and field country for the next four years of her life competing against the best athletes in the United States, but Hiltz doesn’t forget where it all began, on the beautiful beaches of Santa Cruz with the Junior Guards program.
At 7-years-old Hiltz started the program that teaches kids to be lifeguards, because she wanted to follow her sister who was also involved in Junior Guards. She went on to try her hand at the distance run in the program and excelled in it winning first place in regionals at the age of 9.
Hiltz also played every sport available as a child and in her two years at Aptos Middle School, eventually falling in love with soccer. Her coach played her at midfield because she would never get tired of running back and forth on the field. She kicked around the ball for nine years before she decided that she would lace up the spikes and give up everything else to pursue a career in track and field.
In her freshman year at Aptos she finished in second place at CCS earning a spot in the California State Meet, where she said she ran a “horrible race” and finished in 20th place. The following year Hiltz went back to the State Finals where she placed third, and last year Hiltz dusted everyone and was crowned the State Champion.
All along the way she set nine Aptos school records, won six SCCAL Championships, six CCS Championships and a State Championship.
But Hiltz isn’t thinking about that now.
She’s thinking about Sarah Robinson, of Gunn High School, and Anna Maxwell, of San Lorenzo Valley High School, her competition for the CCS finals this Friday at Gilroy High School.
“I guess it’s a little scary that I haven’t beaten (Robinson) this season,” said Hiltz. “But it’s also an advantage because I don’t have that huge target on my back. Nobody is expecting me to win. Everyone keeps doubting me saying that, ‘she’s lost too many times to Robinson and to Maxwell there’s no way,’ so it’s like I’m out of the picture almost. It’s actually kind of nice, because I’m kind of the underdog. I think I can beat them. I think if I put out my best effort there’s no way I’m going to lose this race.”
If things go according to plan, then she’ll have one more race after the Friday’s CCS Finals, and if we’ve learned anything from Hiltz’s career at Aptos it’s that she knows how to finish, with a kick.
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