When Nia Akins became an Olympian for the first time, her guitar teacher was looking for her.

It was the final Monday of June, the night of the women’s 800m final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Akins had to miss her weekly Monday night guitar lesson. She’s not just a professional runner, after all. She’s a burgeoning singer-songwriter.

“I totally forgot about it,” the 25-year-old from San Diego told NBC Olympics.

As Akins tore up the Hayward Field track in a lifetime best of 1:57.36 to qualify for Paris, her instructor texted her.

“Are you going to log on?” he asked.

Akins replied after her life-changing race: “Oh, no. I’m so sorry. But I’m an Olympian!”

Akins had played hooky from her guitar lesson, but with a valid excuse.

My biggest dream was to win this race. I’m just so grateful to be on the other side. This meet can be really stressful. It's a lot of pressure.

Pressure is everywhere for American runners at the Olympic Trials, where milliseconds can separate an Olympian from an elite runner watching the Games from their couch. At Trials, the top-three finishers make the Olympic team. Anyone else — no matter who you are, no matter how fast your times are, no matter how many fans you have — is shut out.

Akins knows this firsthand.


At her first Olympic Trials in 2021, Akins found herself down on the ground.

Just 22 seconds into the final, she tripped on Athing Mu’s back heel and tumbled to the ground. It took Akins just four seconds to get up and keep running, but any hope of a top-three finish had been ripped away. Akins finished dead last.

That trauma left Akins with emotional scars — and still three years away from a possible redemption chance at the 2024 Trials on that same track in Eugene, Oregon.

During those three crucial years of her athletic prime, Akins built up her body — and crucially, her mind — to ensure a triumphant return.

She went through exposure therapy with her sports psychologist, paying visits to Eugene and to the Hayward Field track.

“[What happened at 2021 Trials] was a bad thing,” Akins said. “But I feel like I came out of it a better believer and a stronger athlete. I was like, ‘OK, I'm not going to miss this next opportunity at Trials. I wanted to know what I was capable of.”

The following year, Akins returned to Eugene and placed a meager 11th in the semifinal at the USA Outdoor Championships, failing even to reach the finals. At that year’s USA Indoor Championships, she finished seventh.

“It was really important to remember why I love this sport and why I'm doing it,” Akins said. “I know how to run an 800, and that's what I'm doing.”

Akins promised herself she wouldn’t get frustrated. She kept toiling away — sharpening her body, and her mind, trusting that she’d improve.

“Our sport is very black-and-white,” she said. “You run the times that you run. You get the place that you get. It’s very objective in that way. I do think that's a really cool and beautiful thing.”

In February 2023, Akins turned her seventh-place USA Indoors finish into a national title, scraping out a win in the women’s 800m. Five months later, she returned to that same hallowed track in Eugene — Track Town, USA — for USA Outdoors.

Again, Akins smashed it, edging Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist Raevyn Rogers to win her second national championship in under 150 days.

You learn a lesson at each race. You build the faith over time. You learn yourself. You learn what you can do. You fall, you get back up.

If Akins’ words sound like they could be song lyrics, it’s no mistake. That’s where her mind is at.


Akins always wanted to try out guitar. She just never had the time.

Burning through an Ivy League nursing school while competing on Penn’s cross country and track and field teams didn’t leave her with much free time to experiment — until COVID-19 struck.

The pandemic cut Akins’ senior year short, landing her at home with her mother, Nicol Akins, who “picked up” on her daughter’s musical appetite.

So, on Nia’s 22nd birthday that July, Nicol bought her a sleek black guitar.

“I had a lot of free time, and I was like, ‘Well, I might as well do something that I've always wanted to do,’” Akins remembered. “I played that guitar into the ground.”

As she was simultaneously kicking off her pro running career, Akins began with YouTube lessons and what she describes as “messing around.” It didn’t take long for her to outgrow that initial dabbling, requiring a more intense commitment.

She signed up for online lessons and even began writing songs. In Akins’ words, “the rest is history.”

She grew up adoring Alicia Keys, the Black Eyed Peas and Glass Animals, who she saw at her first concert. Akins has also drawn inspiration from another source.

“I remember watching Taylor Swift on ‘The Ellen Show,’” Akins recalled. “She talked about how, when she writes songs, she records them into her phone.

“That's when I started writing songs. I didn't know how to write music, so I was just recording on my phone.”

Akins’ new process soon produced songs at a furious pace. In the spring of 2021, she released her first song, “Paper Boats,” published under the pseudonym Teddy Oliver.

Initial feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Akins was attracting listeners with her soulful, resonant voice and lyrics that dove into her personal journey. So, she kept churning out songs, finally doing so under her real name.

“When I write, every song is me pouring out my soul, my feelings and my circumstances in the most honest, raw, unholy form,” Akins wrote on her Spotify page. “I feel like a fetus in like a sumo wrestler's body, but this fetus is hoping to release her first full-length album this year.”

A few months after “Paper Boats,” Akins and her teammates arrived at the Airbnb they’d secured for those devastating 2021 Trials. Tucked in the corner of one room was a grand piano. As with her guitar, Akins sat down and began to groove with the piano. She worked up another song, “Smoke,” which documented Akins and her teammates’ roller-coaster journey through the pandemic-delayed Olympic cycle:

No smoke, no fire
We′re down to the wire now
Your light inside
Will never die, never burn out
I felt the tide change
Swept my feet right from the ground
But I can only aspire to be
Everything I dreamed about.

Akins records in Seattle, working with a producer she calls “absolutely incredible.” She plans to debut her first full album after running in the Paris Olympics.

“I mean this just happened, and I just want to write stuff about it,” Akins said, referring to her victory at Trials. “We're going to record quite a bit more.”

As she wrote, produced and released her music, Akins continued to sharpen her focus on June 24, 2024: the day of the women’s 800m final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

That was her chance to make this her year.

Trials Part II

Akins lined up in Lane 8 — on the same track, with the same stakes and with many of the same competitors — as the night of her fall in 2021.

As in 2021, Mu was the heavy favorite to win, especially now that she’d won gold at the Tokyo Olympics. But to Nia Akins, this race was about Nia Akins. It was about not shying from the pressure.

“My goal, when I toed the line for this race, was to not be afraid of this race,” Akins said. “My sports psych and my coach, we did a lot of work with leveling down the meet."

“I was thinking, ‘I'm not the same athlete that I was then. It's not going to be the same race.’ You just never know how it's going to play out.”

Here’s how it played out: This time, it wasn’t Akins who fell. It was Mu — the defending Olympic champion, the U.S. record holder. The strong favorite tumbled down just 200m in and, like Akins had in 2021, rose up and finished, crossing the line in last. Mu’s chance at an Olympic return was over.

“What happened [to Athing] is incredibly unfortunate,” Akins said. “I feel like I felt it myself when it happened to me.”

But 22 seconds before Mu jogged across the finish line wearing heartbreak on her face, Akins flew through the tape in first place and onto her first Olympic team.

She cried, then she collapsed from the emotion. She wrapped Allie Wilson and Juliette Whittaker, who finished second and third, in tight hugs.

“I wasn’t thinking, I was just running,” Akins told Lewis Johnson of NBC Sports just seconds after the race. “I’m just speechless. I don’t know what to say.”

Nia Akins (right) and Juliette Whittaker react after placing first and third in the women's 800m final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field.
Nia Akins (right) and Juliette Whittaker react after placing first and third in the women's 800m final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field.
Kirby Lee, USA Today

A week later, the songwriter was still hunting for the right words.

“I still haven't really processed what happened yet. People keep asking me how I’m feeling, and I'm like, ‘I don't know.’”

Regardless of the emotion, the result is the same: Akins is headed to the Paris Olympics — just like her dad knew she would.

“He was like, ‘I'll see you in Paris,’” Akins said. “He said, ‘I'm not coming to the Trials. I'm confident. I'm going to get the tickets.’”

On August 5, Akins will face the next biggest race of her life in a still-growing list of high-stakes events: the Olympic women’s 800m final.

“I still have more to offer going into the Games,” Akins said. “I'm going to show up very, very ready and see what happens.”