By Alison Wade
As a professional middle-distance runner, Nia Akins has competed on many big stages, but no race has been anywhere near as nerve-wracking as when she went live on Instagram earlier this month to share her music. Even many of her friends were surprised to learn that she was a musician—and that’s because she wasn’t until recently.
Growing up, Akins, now 23, put a lot of energy into her athletic pursuits, and she didn’t take any type of music lessons. She became a track star and was a two-time NCAA runner-up in the 800m at the University of Pennsylvania. She hoped to vie for the indoor and outdoor 800m titles in 2020, her senior year, but her season was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic.
One month before her collegiate career abruptly ended, she had run 2:00.71 in an indoor 800m, 0.02 seconds away from the collegiate record at the time. Both the record and an NCAA title seemed within reach, so losing those opportunities felt like a devastating blow.
But the pandemic also led to the discovery of a new passion. Akins’ mother had given her a guitar during her sophomore year of college, and she had played around with it a bit, but when the pandemic began, she decided it was time to really learn how to play.
Akins expected to pursue a career in nursing when she graduated from Penn in May 2020, but nearly matching the collegiate record in February helped her realize that professional running was also an option. So in the early days of the pandemic, while she was exploring music, she was also exploring her pro running options. In June 2020, she announced that she was joining the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts.
During the team’s first altitude camp, Akins began taking online guitar lessons. She got an electric guitar and began learning scales and music theory. Her teacher would teach her a new concept and then have her write a song using it. Because Akins was living with her teammates at altitude camp, they got a front row seat as she developed her musical talent. Marta Pen Freitas, Akins’ teammate and training partner, encouraged her to put her music out there. By the spring of 2021, Akins decided she was ready to release her first song, but she wasn’t ready to put her name on it, so she released “Paper Boats” under the pseudonym Teddy Oliver.
Spencer Brown, Akins’ Brooks Beasts teammate at the time, has a popular YouTube channel, and he shared the song in one of his videos shortly after, outing Akins as Teddy Oliver. She got positive feedback from that, and was encouraged by it, but she was still reluctant to truly own that part of her identity. She admits that it was harder sharing her music having already made a name for herself on the track.
“I remember being kind of resentful, like why do I have to want to do this too? Couldn’t I have just picked one thing?” Akins told Fast Women. “There was a time where I thought I was going to keep secretly putting songs out under that name. But then I started to write a slew of songs kind of around [the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials] and just before Trials. They’re not about track, but I feel like they just relate to track so much. Because I wrote those songs, I felt like Nia wrote these, I felt like I should put Nia’s name on them.”
When Akins arrived at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials to compete for a spot on the Olympic team, she found that the Airbnb her team had rented had a grand piano. Though she had no experience with the instrument, Akins figured it out well enough that she was able to continue working on “Smoke” between her 800m rounds. Akins released the song earlier this week, under her own name this time.
The song is partially inspired by how Akins’ teammates and competitors conducted themselves at the Trials—delayed for a year by Covid, and then competition was delayed by the heat. “There was just so much faith. Sports in general, but especially track, we’re very privileged in the sense that everybody can talk about their faith openly. As a Christian, I resonate with that really well,” Akins said. “But I just felt like everyone honestly was like, ‘What’s happening now? Okay, it’s delayed? That’s fine. We’re still going to race, it’s still going to be great, and we’re going to get it done… It was really cool, especially since that was my first one, it was already delayed a year, and it was really hot. There was just so much going on, but everybody else just being so calm and collected about it for the most part made me feel like we were fine.”
On the track, the Trials got off to a good start for Akins. She advanced through the first two rounds and was pleased to earn a spot in the final. Due to record temperatures on the day of the 800m final, the race was delayed several hours. But on the evening of June 28th, Akins lined up against eight of the fastest 800m runners in the country, and the first three to cross the finish line would become Olympians. Akins wasn’t favored to make the team, but she felt ready to go and thought she could break 2:00 for the first time in her life.
Less than 200 meters into the race, while the runners were merging on the backstretch, Akins got tangled up with eventual winner Athing Mu and went down hard. Akins bounced back up quickly, but there was too much ground to make up. She finished ninth of nine finalists, well off her best time. But overall, Akins looks back on her Trials experience fondly. And because of the way her college career ended, Akins had already had experience dealing with disappointment. “I think that was more of a frustrating time for me, but I think it prepared me for Trials,” Akins said. “But then I signed with Brooks. And then I met all of these great people and so many great things happened. I’ve always felt like God has a plan and everything happens for a reason. It took me a while to realize that during Covid, but it made it a lot easier for me to get over Trials faster.”
Music helped, too. And eventually, she wrote a couple songs about falling at the Trials, though she doesn’t know if she’ll ever release them. “I feel like some of those were just for me,” she said.
Akins believes that a sub-2:00 800m will come. She ran five 2:00 800s in 2021, including a personal best of 2:00.24. “I know it’s there,” she said. “I know it’s been there for a while, but I think there’s a reason why it hasn’t happened yet. And I feel like when it does happen, I’ll know that this was when it was meant to happen.”
She had originally hoped to pursue nursing and professional running at the same time, but Akins learned that doing both is a tough combination. For now, all of that is on hold while she explores her potential in running.
Akins’ mother, Nicol Hodges, was a high-level 400m runner for the University of Missouri, and she did some professional running in the early 1990s. But there was far less structure and fewer group training opportunities back then, so she moved on. Akins said it’s particularly satisfying for Hodges to see her daughter have the opportunities that she does now. And Akins is still chasing her mother’s times. “I don’t think I’ve beaten her open 400m PR yet. I have some work to do to catch up to mom,” she said.
Akins is currently at altitude camp in Albuquerque and plans to run a couple indoor races before focusing on the outdoor season. She is scheduled to run the 800m at next weekend’s Millrose Games, but she said she’s going to see how she feels, because she’s still getting over a recent illness.
Adjusting to professional running has been a process. She struggled through her first altitude camp, but adjusts to altitude quickly now. “The workouts, across the board, are way harder than what I did in college, by a lot,” said Akins. “But I know that they’re working, and it’s not too much. [Coach Danny Mackey] is really good at adjusting that to make sure that I’m still benefiting from it but not overtraining.” After doing a lot of her training on her own last year, Akins is thrilled that former Clemson standout Laurie Barton, also an NCAA runner-up in the 800m, has joined the team, and Akins called her “the most perfect training partner.”
In her spare time, Akins plans to keep working on her music. She hopes to put out a short album by the end of the year. Her hobby complements her running well. It’s a great way to recover after a workout, and flexible enough that Akins can take days off when she’s exhausted from training. “[Songwriting] is very cathartic because I feel like I can process or work through anything in a song,” she said.
(More ways to listen to “Smoke” here.)
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