When Penn’s Nia Akins approached the starting line for the women’s 800-meter final at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in March, she said she embraced “no real expectations” and wanted to see where she stood among the nation’s elite college runners.
As it turned out, she stood right with them. Her personal-best time of 2 minutes, 3.74 seconds left her .05 of a second behind the winner, Penn State’s Danae Rivers, losing by “a smidge,” as Akins recalled it.
“That race was kind of a ‘Well, we made it here, let’s just see what you’re made of’ kind of day,” she said last week at Franklin Field. “I kind of went in unheralded, and it was really nice to go in and just give it everything I had and know I’m not really going to lose anything, especially with the outpouring of support that I had from my team.”
Akins, a junior from San Diego, will be back on the national stage this week in Austin, Texas, at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, but she won’t be alone. While she is a top individual talent, she thrives on the support of her teammates, 10 of whom will be joining her in Austin.
Akins was attracted to Penn by the university’s School of Nursing, but it was her fellow athletes and director of track and field Steve Dolan who really won her over.
“That’s why I came here, honestly,” she said. “The nursing school was the draw for me, but when I came here and I met the people and the coach, these are the type of people I wanted to surround myself with, just positive, supportive people, no matter what.
“I think had I come in last at indoor nationals, I think I still would have received the same outpouring of support. Coming off of that, we all would have been able to still build momentum and still keep pushing for the success of the program and the success of the team at large, which is pretty special.”
The team aspect shone brightly at the Penn Relays, where Akins gave the Quakers the lead in the distance medley relay with a 1,200-meter opening leg. With teammates Uchechi Nwogwugwu, Melissa Tanaka and Maddie Villalba, the Quakers became the first women’s Ivy League team to win a Championship of America at the carnival.
Akins won the individual 800 at the Ivy League Outdoor Heptagonal Championships and continued her outstanding season last month at the East Preliminaries in Jacksonville, Fla. She posted the fastest time in the field in both 800-meter heats, with her second-round time of 2:03.44 smashing her own program record.
She also ran a 53-second split on the Penn 4x400-meter relay team that advanced to Austin.
“It’s been certainly a dream year for her,” Dolan said. “She made a breakthrough in the indoor season, and she’s continued it the whole outdoor season, really. Between the Penn Relays and the Ivy League championships and the East Preliminaries, she’s really been on her game. So it’s really fun to watch her running with confidence and letting her training and talent come out.”
She’s done it while handling a major academic load, which included clinical training this year.
“I have these eight- to 12-hour blocks of class that I have to work training around, which has been a bit tough,” Akins said. “But I love it. When I’m in clinical, that’s all I’m thinking about, and then I can easily come over to practice. When I’m practicing, that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m able to compartmentalize pretty well.”
Akins began her athletic career as a soccer player and ran cross-country to stay in shape for soccer. She switched over and competed in track and cross-country all four years of high school but prefers track because “it’s the perfect amount of distance,” she said.
Now, she’s on the threshold of a national championship, but Akins does not want to get ahead of herself. A semifinal heat awaits Thursday night, and for her, it’s “one day, one hour, one moment at a time.”
After the indoor final in March, however, she knows what she’s capable of.