CJ Nickolas has overcome so many obstacles to reach the Olympics. He’s aiming for taekwondo gold

PARIS (AP) — A malformed vertebra couldn’t stop him. Neither could heart surgery, or a change of weight category that everyone thought was a big mistake.

Breaking his arm in the buildup to the Paris Games was just a minor distraction, too.

It seems there’s almost nothing that could derail CJ Nickolas’ quest for an Olympic medal.

At 22, Nickolas is the highest-ranked U.S. athlete in taekwondo, No. 2 in the world in the men’s 80-kilogram (176-pound) class. A silver medalist at last year’s world championships, he will be leading the four-member U.S. taekwondo team in Paris.

His silver at the worlds was the first for the U.S. men’s team since 2009, and the Californian now hopes he’ll become the first American man in the sport to stand on the Olympic podium in 12 years.

“Going in there and just forcing it and forcing and forcing, imposing yourself on the other person for the entire day,” Nickolas told The Associated Press of his competitive approach. “If I can do that, I don’t think that there’s anyone that can beat me.”

Nickolas’ Olympic journey started when he was just three. His mother Denise — a nurse whom he cites as his main inspiration alongside his adoptive father — took him to a taekwondo club.


“She didn’t like combat sports and she just wanted to make sure that what I was doing was making me a better person — and not just teaching me how to fight,” Nickolas said.

Denise fell in love with Edward Givans, who was the owner of the taekwondo school. They didn’t stay married for long, but Givans carried on coaching Nickolas, who still calls him his dad. They both instilled in him a taste for hard work and dedication.

“Everybody around me has taught me how to work hard every which way I turn,” Nickolas said. “It’s just a bunch of hard workers and people who embrace the struggle rather than shy away from it or fall into it. And it’s a lot of success that we see come from it.”

Denise said her son is “one of the most, if not the most, driven people I know.”

“I just supported his dream and let him lead the way,” she told the AP.

Nickolas’ career really took off after he decided four years ago to move up in weight categories. Nickolas stands 6-feet-2 (1.88 meters) but many thought he was too small for the move.

A career-changing move

Continuing at the 68-kilogram (150-pound) category would’ve been the more conventional route to an Olympic medal.

“Everyone was like, ‘What are you doing?’ You’re too small. You were fine in 68 kilos, just buckle down and make the weight,'” he said. “I didn’t really care about what everybody was saying because the place that I was in, with the sport, I had fallen out of love.”

Nickolas had plateaued and had lost the joy of competing, mainly because of what he had to go through mentally and physically to cut weight.

Supported by his coach, Nickolas made the career-changing decision to move up to the heavier division.

“I was a little bit nervous but at that point, it was like, ‘I don’t have to focus on making weight. I don’t have to focus on anything but getting better as an athlete and fighting,’” Nickolas recalled. “It was super freeing, and I found my love for the sport again. It absolutely was the best decision that I probably made in my adult life.”

Then there were other problems to solve.

Health issues

A bone defect in his neck is a condition that, from a doctor’s perspective, should prevent Nickolas from being a professional fighter.

“But there’s muscle in that place now. So it’s strong,” Nickolas said. “It’s not like it’s an Achilles’ heel, or something like that. If I was to take a really bad hit in that area then it, it wouldn’t be pretty at all. But any hit in this back area is not great.”

There was also the complication of a heart condition, discovered in 2020.

“That was a big year,” he said. “I moved up weight divisions, got heart surgery.”

Nickolas had terrible migraines and struggled to breathe before medical tests revealed a hole in his heart, a condition dating from his birth that had aggravated. It wasn’t life-threatening, but certainly required quick action.

Rather than hinder his athletic development, it has helped.

“I don’t really wheeze anymore … and I can last longer in the ring. I don’t get migraines like that anymore,” he said. “It worked out for me very, very well.”

The list of setbacks didn’t end there, though.

In May, as he prepared for the Olympics at the Pan American championships in Brazil, Nickolas fractured his left forearm during the final. With adrenaline masking the pain, he kept on fighting. And won.

A couple of days later, he was back on the mat at a tournament he needed to attend to ensure a good ranking at the Olympics. The pain was worse, and his arm was sore and throbbing.

“I couldn’t make a fist so we had to tape my hand closed so that I could hold a fist and tighten my arm — I had to do that for four fights,” he said. “And I got the job done. A little checkpoint going into the Games.”

Now comes the final hurdle, in the person of Simone Alessio, the reigning world champion who beat him the final at the worlds. Alessio is Nickolas’ nemesis, an Italian athlete standing at 6-feet-6 (1.98-meters).

“When I’m in a short distance with him, my face is on his chest,” Nickolas said. “The hardest fight that I have in the division is the guys that are taller than me, you know, the David and Goliath situation,” he said. But “The last time I fought him, it was tight. So it was essentially down to some technical stuff that he beat me, that’s how close we are at this point.”


AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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