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Nia Akins signed with Brooks Beasts Track Club.

Credit: Chase Sutton

While the coronavirus threw the world into tumult, 2020 graduate Nia Akins moved to Seattle and became the first 2020 NCAA track athlete to go pro.

For Akins, signing with Brooks Beasts Track Club, a professional training group, was a process both complicated and aided by COVID-19. The logistics of moving to Seattle amid travel restrictions and safety concerns posed its own struggle, but after the cancelation of NCAA Championships and the postponement of the Olympics, Akins had more time to make a decision.

“When the opportunity presented itself to come here, I had a very long time to decide if this is actually what I wanted to do,” Akins said. “It was definitely nice to have the time to figure it out.”

Akins left record-breaking marks at Penn, notably running the second-fastest 800-meter time in NCAA history, as well as becoming a two-time NCAA runner-up in the same event. This March, Akins helped lead the women’s track team to their third straight victory in the Ivy League Indoor Heptagonal Championships. Needless to say, her name is strewn all across the Penn record books.

However, the unceremonious cancellation of the season left Akins unable to achieve some of her goals: to earn a title, get a new personal best, and maybe even break the two-minute barrier she was so close to. After making an official visit with Brooks Beasts in the fall—a process very reminiscent of the college recruitment process for high school athletes—the team felt like a natural next step for Akins to continue her athletic career past Penn.

“I knew in the back of my mind that this was a place I felt really strongly about, even back in the fall,” Akins said. “The training philosophy is very similar to my Penn coaches, it’s just at a higher level. Running is a pretty simple sport—it’s just having the next level of training partners, the next level of resources, the next level of coaching. There are some new components that I know will work together nicely with what I’ve been doing.”

Naturally, the transition to living in Seattle hasn’t been completely smooth. While in Philadelphia, Akins lacked access to a track and had to bring chalk while on her runs in order to sketch out her paths. Even with being on a professional team, training requires creativity as runners face the same problems, largely lacking readily-available facilities.

One of the greatest hold-ups, however, lies outside of training. Akins graduated from Penn’s School of Nursing, and she hopes to continue down that path even as she trains.

“I think that the biggest delay has actually been on the nursing front,” Akins said. “It’s been a lot slower to actually try to find work and get registered and what-not. I’m looking to take my boards and settle into a job here.”

After the postponement of the Olympics as a result of the pandemic, Akins’ athletic goals have also shifted. Others have stayed the same; she still wants to break the two-minute barrier that she is right on the cusp of, and she still looks to make the U.S. Olympic team. But while 2020 was originally supposed to be the big year, Akins is now looking to 2021.

“It’s a lot of slow building and taking advantage of the extra time that I have now to get to where I need to be later,” Akins said. “Goals for professional athletes look very different. In college, making it to Nationals is big, but now I want to go to Worlds.”

As a part of Brooks Beasts, Akins has the resources to achieve those new goals. She joins other runners such as Allie Ostrander, who won three NCAA titles and made the U.S. team for the 2019 World Athletics Championships in the steeplechase event, and Josh Kerr, who won three NCAA titles and set the NCAA 1500m record. The group is coached by Danny Mackey, who has coaching experience with numerous Worlds team members.

Still, Akins is making sure to keep perspective and stay safe.

“Being in a position where I can make a team is obviously big, but I think my number one goal is to stay healthy, to transition smoothly, and to be smart about being ready for whenever the season happens,” Akins said.