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Junior Nia Akins balances being a busy Penn Nursing student with her standout career on the track.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

She started track by accident. Now she is second in the nation.

During Penn distance runner Nia Akins’ freshman year of high school, running was just a way to prepare for the upcoming soccer season. However, it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the sport.

“I discovered that I like [track] so much better. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the team and the culture,” Akins said. “That’s when I decided to switch sports, and I’ve been running ever since.”

The junior has continuously found success throughout her career. After being ranked No. 20 in the country among returners in her last year of high school, Akins quickly started to put in strong performances.

During her freshman year at Penn, Akins racked up the accolades, including fourteen top-10 placements and a pair of event wins — notably in the 800-meter at the 2017 Eastern College Athletic Conference Championships.

Akins continued to impress during her sophomore year, when she claimed three titles in the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships and was named to the All-Ivy first team in both the outdoor and indoor 4x800m relay, as well as in the 800m outdoor. Her then-personal best time in the 800 also earned her a spot in the NCAA Championships, where she placed 19th.

Now in her third season for the Quakers, Akins looks to be better than ever. In the 8-Team select last January, the junior set a program record that had previously stood for over a decade. The time of 2:05.86 was also good enough for the fifth-fastest nationwide this year. 

Akins went on to win the 1000 in the Ivy Heps, helping the team win its first back-to-back title since 1988, and was recognized as the Most Outstanding Track Performer of the meet. However, her main accomplishment came at the NCAAs, when she ran a personal-best 2:03.74 in the 800 and finished second, trailing by only 0.05 seconds.

Credit: Gillian Diebold

“She is very self-motivated, and it has been fun to watch her develop herself as a runner and gain confidence in herself,” coach Steve Dolan said. “[Nationals] was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen.”

The Nursing junior also believes that her success has a positive impact on her academics.

“[Balancing school and athletics] will always be a challenge," Akins said. "There are very few people who stick with both track and nursing, but between the Nursing School and Coach Dolan, they find ways to make sure that I do full 12-hour clinical day and still have time to practice and travel for meets. It has actually been a blessing that I’ve been improving and doing well, because it made a lot easier to accommodate and reschedule everything I need to do.”

Although track may be considered an individual sport, Akins’ recent accomplishments play a crucial role in keeping the other athletes focused on performing well, and she relies on her team to gain motivation.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that it is a team sport in the sense that we are all trying to score high as a unit,” Akins said, “Coach Dolan also constantly tells me that I can bring my times down, so as long as I remain focused, stay relaxed and have fun with it, [winning] is a possibility.”

As for what the future holds for her, Akins aims for even better results during future meets.

“I hope to get my time down a little bit more for outdoor season and hopefully win nationals next time,” she said.

Coach Dolan is even more optimistic when it comes to Akins’ future.

“You have to enjoy the moment when you achieve such results, because you never know when it’s going to happen again, but as soon as she finishes a race, she starts talking about how she wants to win in the following meets,” he said. “I think she has goals beyond NCAAs. We’re excited about next year’s Olympic Trials as well, and this breakthrough performance keeps this dream very much alive.”

Whether Akins will eventually make to the Olympics in 2020 remains uncertain. Nonetheless, her consistent progress and incredible results leaves no doubt that she is one to watch on the track.