Nia Akins’ collegiate track career has been one full of accomplishments from the beginning to the very abrupt end.
The morning of the Ivy League Heptagonal Indoor Track and Field Championships was the same as any other meet for Akins. The plan was to take care of business at the Indoor Heps before closing out the indoor season with the NCAA Championships, and moving on to the outdoor season. The senior would go on to help her team to its third straight Ivy Heps win, while picking up two individual first place finishes and being named the Most Outstanding Female Track Athlete.
But when she walked off the field that afternoon, she didn’t know that’d be the last time she’d do so in her college career.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly across the country, putting large events and gatherings on pause, athletic events were no exception. Only 10 days after celebrating the Ivy Heps win, Akins’ athletic collegiate career came to an unexpected end.
Right before news about the Ivy season's cancellation broke publicly, Akins received a call from her coach telling her the news. At the time, she was walking to the Dunning Coaches' Center, where she saw two other teams gathered together, crying. It was at that moment that the gravity of the situation hit her.
“I was just in shock, I didn’t believe it. It didn’t really seem real in the moment,” Akins said. “I’m still grieving in some way, but I’m working on looking at the positive things in it too.”
It was the end to an extremely successful and record-breaking career. Akins leaves Penn with eight program records, including the indoor 1000-meter and the outdoor 1500m. Her most impressive feat came this season, when she put herself in the NCAA record book. In February, Akins’ 2:00.71 time in the indoor 800m was the second best in NCAA history.
“She always showed up at the big track meet when it was time, and she would always come through in that situation,” coach Steve Dolan said. “She definitely leads by example with her hard work and ability to respond in big situations.”
Her dominant, record-breaking career put her in strong contention to join the Olympic team in Tokyo this year. Although the Olympics are postponed until 2021, Akins still has her sights set on competing for a spot when the time comes.
The Olympics are what many athletes dream of from a young age, and can be a career-defining moment. It’s their opportunity to showcase their talents to the world and represent their country. For Akins, the idea of even being in contention for the Olympics was something that she never even thought was a possibility until recently.
“I couldn’t have imagined [having a shot at the Olympics] in my freshman year in college, let alone junior year, last year; it was still a pipe dream,” Akins said. “I fully saw a better picture of what I was possible of honestly this spring, so to have that appear and evaporate really quickly isn’t the greatest feeling.”
Akins’ realization of her full potential and dreams of the Olympics are still new to her. Although she won’t be able to act on that anytime soon, she now has something to train toward. At the moment, Akins doesn’t have a clear picture of what her immediate future looks like beyond focusing on graduating and continuing her training.
Akins’ dedication and athletic success on the field made her a leader to her teammates. Akins has proven to be more than just a star athlete, as she has successfully balanced track with the demanding course work of studying nursing.
“She had a lot of hard work in her academic work as a nursing major, and then as an athlete to develop her talents to the fullest and inspire those around her,” Dolan said. “She’s definitely inspirational to her teammates, and made the idea of competing at the highest level possible.”
The heavy course load and long days of clinicals were certainly a lot to balance with her track career, but for Akins, the work was worth it because nursing is something she has always wanted to pursue.
“I have always wanted to help people, and I value how that feels,” Akins said. “There’s value to what you’re doing beyond a grade or a GPA.”
Akins’ intersection of nursing and track has been the focus of her collegiate career, and she has succeeded at both. In the future, Akins sees herself continuing to do both in some capacity.
“My goal is to set myself up so I can work as a nurse and run on the side. I don’t know what context that’ll be in, but that’s the dream,” Akins said.
Throughout her four years at Penn, Akins has set over a dozen records and picked up multiple championships and awards. While Akins’ outstanding collegiate career may be over, this isn’t the end of her career in track; it is just the beginning.