×

How East Bay taekwondo fighter CJ Nickolas became a gold medal contender at the Paris Olympics

How East Bay taekwondo fighter CJ Nickolas became a gold medal contender at the Paris Olympics

For Brentwood’s Denise Nickolas, it was just another day as a single mom with two kids.

But for her son, CJ, now 22, those days still inspire him.

He remembers his mom working all day as a nurse and running her daughter, Christian, to gymnastics, and CJ to taekwondo. She would eat dinner out of tupperware in the car, then return home, where she’d work late at her desk until she fell asleep at the keyboard.

“That’s where I learned about hard work,” he said. “I wanted to work harder than her.”

This summer, CJ is going to the Paris Olympics, where he’ll look to become the first American man to win a gold medal in taekwondo since 2004.

Ranked No. 2 in the world in his 80-kg weight class, CJ believes he’s good enough to win it all. His identity as a fighter now is “explosive, flashy,” he said, “with a really strong foundation where I can beat you at your game or I can beat you with mine.”

That’s not how it always was.

“Until a couple years ago, I never thought I was really good,” he said. “But I knew I could win because I worked harder than everyone else. And I’m a scrappy fighter.”

Denise Nickolas, mother of Olympian CJ Nickolas, strikes a Tae-Kwan-Do pose at her home in Brentwood, Calif., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Denise and her son got into the sport when he was 3. Both have competed in tournaments and just a few years ago, Denise won a national title as her son is already with the USA Olympic team heading to Paris. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Scrappiness is in his family’s DNA.

Growing up, CJ’s biological father wasn’t in the picture, but his father’s sister, Patricia Nickolas, vowed to help Denise raise the kids with her.

“With two of my best friends, we said we’d be committed to being there to pick up whatever pieces, whatever slack needed to happen,” Patricia said. “That has been my mission.”

Surrounded by women, CJ learned about hard work, respect and sensitivity.

“Those are important lessons that come from women,” Denise said.

But she also wanted him to find male role models. They found some at World Taekwondo in Pittsburg, since renamed the Givens Taekwondo Academy.

The instructor, Edward Givens, was a former military infantry ranger. He was “on the front lines, jumping out of airplanes,” CJ said. “Then he got involved in taekwondo in the army, joined the world-class athlete program, retired and started his business.”

CJ was only 3, but Denise convinced Givens to let her son join a class of 5-year-olds.

The club became CJ’s second home.

“I didn’t realize it then, but that was my family,” he said. “I’d spend a lot of time there.”

Givens hit it off with Denise, too. They were married for a few months, but realized they were better off as friends. After the divorce, Givens continued on as a father-figure to CJ.

“All I’ve ever known was him as my dad,” CJ said. “That was a true blessing.”

With his dad’s coaching, CJ became obsessed with the sport.

“He brings that militaristic training,” CJ said. “Everything he said, the motivational stuff, ‘Don’t let anyone outwork you in the room’ –  that hit me twice as hard because he’s my dad and I can’t let him down.

“That was instilled in me at such a young age. Now that’s part of the identity in my game, the ruthlessness and relentlessness and the physicality and how he trained me to be so explosive and harness that old school taekwondo, bring that to my new game. The core of it is him. How he trained me.

“And my mom, being a single mother and working all day as a nurse, then running round the town to bring us places, I gotta work harder than her. Then we go home and she’s falling asleep at the computer. That’s what I know.”

Some of the dozens of awards won by Olympian CJ Nickolas in national and international Tae-Kwan-Do competitions are displayed along with one of his mother’s awards in his room in Brentwood, Calif., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Denise and her son got into the sport when he was 3. Both have competed in tournaments and just a few years ago, Denise won a national title as her son is already with the USA Olympic team heading to Paris. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Givens coached CJ from age 3 to 17, helping him become a budding star in the sport. After his junior year at Heritage High School, CJ got an offer with a professional taekwondo team that required him to move to England.

“He was very gracious in that handover, handing me to my current coach,” CJ said of Givens.

Initially, Denise didn’t want CJ to go to Europe.

“It was one of the most devastating moments for me,” she said. “Monumentally devastating in my life. I remember feeling so sick. But I didn’t know any other options. This was his path. Saying no would’ve changed the trajectory of his whole life and our relationship.

“He left before he turned 17 and he’s never been back other than to visit.”

For CJ, it was an easy decision. It was exciting. Something different. He loved his time in Europe, made friends from all over the world and learned how good he can be in the sport.

And for the first time in his life, he had a chance to form a new identity.

“I was creating my own style, incorporating my foundation into my game,” he said. “That’s when I found out who I was. There’s nobody doing anything like this.”

He later moved to Colorado to be at the Olympic training center, then to Charlotte where the United States Performance Center is currently located. Over the past two years CJ has become one of the world’s best in his weight class, winning a silver medal at the 2023 World Championships in Azerbaijan.

In Paris, he’ll be a legitimate gold medal contender.

“This is a culmination of everything I’ve worked on in my life,” he said. “I’m about to present myself to the world and show them everything I’ve been working on for the last 22 years.”

Denise Nickolas, mother of Olympian CJ Nickolas, shows dozens of medals her son has won in national and international Tae-Kwan-Do competitions displayed in his room in Brentwood, Calif., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Denise and her son got into the sport when he was 3. Both have competed in tournaments and just a few years ago, Denise won a national title as her son is already with the USA Olympic team heading to Paris. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The pressure can sometimes be overwhelming.

“But I’ll be OK, I’m built for the shows,” he said. “I love thinking about it and I can’t wait to stand on that top of the podium and the national anthem is going and I finally have that medal. That’ll be a super emotional moment and I truly believe it’s going to happen.”

In Brentwood, Patricia and Denise get emotional just thinking about CJ’s journey.

Patricia remembers a young CJ winning tournaments and noticing his defeated competitor crying on the side of the mat. CJ would walk over, “put the medal on that kid’s neck and say, ‘You did great,’” Patricia said.

Whether he wins or loses in Paris, “we love him no matter what,” Patricia said.

“You are not taekwondo, taekwondo is what you do,” Denise told him. “Your value as a human is separate from what you do.”

Givens has since closed his taekwondo school in the East Bay and opened a new one in Las Vegas. He and CJ remain in contact and CJ is hoping Givens will be there to support him in Paris.

Denise, who also became obsessed with taekwondo and has a fourth-degree black belt, recently retired from the sport after winning a national championship in the ultra age bracket (43 and over) in 2017. She already booked her trip to Paris.

Related Articles

Olympics |


Bay Area’s Olympians explain why the region is a water polo hotbed

Olympics |


Brooks Johnson, 1934-2024: Legendary former Stanford, Olympic track coach dies at 90

Olympics |


Aptos native Nikki Hiltz qualifies for Olympics with historic showing in 1,500

Olympics |


Simone Biles secures third trip to the Olympics after breezing to victory at U.S. trials

Olympics |


Olympics: How Scotts Valley wrestler Dom Parrish overcame family tragedy to rise up U.S. wrestling ranks

She keeps CJ’s medals and trophies in their Brentwood home, where she’s reminded of the 3-year-old boy who couldn’t stop running.

“Nowadays, it’s very hard, I live across the country in Charlotte and my whole family is in California,” CJ said. “But I feel connected and I feel the love. I know everyone is so proud of me. It’s a mutual sacrifice that everyone is willing to let me go and fly and do my thing. They know there’s big potential for me.”

For CJ, taekwondo and family go hand in hand.

“There’s an unexplainable thing that I can’t let go of,” CJ said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let go.”