As the winter progressed, the goals for Penn’s Nia Akins were coming more into focus: her first NCAA championship at 800 meters and breaking 2 minutes in the event for the first time; a repeat title with her Quakers teammates in the distance medley relay at the Penn Relays; and qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.
Regrettably, those dreams were dashed, if only temporarily, by the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic. The cancellations and postponements came in rapid succession: the Ivy League’s spring sports competitions March 11 (canceled), the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships March 12 (canceled), the Penn Relays March 16 (postponed), and the Olympics Tuesday (postponed).
For someone who specializes in time management, as an emerging world-class athlete and a student in Penn’s demanding School of Nursing, Akins could finally take a little break. Her academic work is currently online and her clinical rounds aren’t as rigorous as they would be in more normal times.
The resident of San Diego took a couple of days off from running and is getting back to it, averaging about six miles a day and resuming workouts.
With Franklin Field’s track closed, she still has a variety of areas to run, and one of her favorites is the Woodlands, a historic 54-acre landscape that runs from 40th Street and Woodland Avenue to near the west bank of the Schuylkill, and consists of a mansion, a garden, and a cemetery.
“It is very interesting,” Akins said. “The graveyard isn’t really too far from where I live and has a trail that goes around it. It’s really nice.
“I’m kind of freelance running right now, trying to figure out how we’re going to train, where we’re going to train, and all that stuff. The river is still open and I have been doing the city, too. There’s no one really out so anywhere you run right now, it’s really nice. I’ve been running without my watch, too. It’s been really enjoyable, different.”
Academically, Akins said the hours of clinical rotations have been reduced from 24 a week in-person to 14 a week online. She is appreciative of the support from everyone at Penn, including the professors, “all kind of figuring this out together."
“It’s a very nice time right now to kind of sit back and relax,” she said. “I’m taking classes, but I don’t have to worry about getting from Point A to Point B as much. It also allows me to kind of run whenever I want, which is also really nice. It’s forcing me to fall back in love with the sport without the competitive aspect of it, and the same thing with nursing.
“I’m feeling very secure in my decisions – to be a competitive runner, and to be a nurse right now. Even with the absence of maybe the fun stuff – the racing and the clinical component in the hospital – it’s still very enjoyable.”
After running the second-fastest time in NCAA history for the women’s indoor 800 – 2 minutes, 0.71 seconds – on Feb. 14 in Boston, Akins was primed to shatter the 2-minute barrier for the first time. That is on hold, and there is no telling if she will get a chance to race outdoors later this year.
She thinks the Ivy League, which does not allow its student-athletes to play sports while attending graduate school, will consider giving a fifth year of eligibility to spring sports athletes who weren’t able to compete this year.
“I’m speaking for all Ivy League athletes because we come here for the school, but we also come here to compete in the sport that we do,” Akins said. “So it definitely would be nice to get that back. I know a lot of people would like to continue their education in the Ivy League, too. So it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“I’ve really enjoyed my years at Penn so far. I’m just kind of weighing all my options now and trying to figure out what’s best for me moving forward. But I’m just so appreciative of Penn, especially at a time like this, because they really do a good job of being supportive.”
And when the chance comes next year to make the Olympic team, she feels she’ll be ready.
“I don’t have any reason to believe that it can’t still come together next year,” she said. “Right now, it’s kind of all about patience and supporting the people around me in any way that I can ... focusing on what’s happening in the world at large. For now, this is where we are.