Healthy Life

Fort Myers Athlete Nikki Oliver Makes a Mark in the World-Dominated Sport of Taekwondo

Like most martial arts, taekwondo is played as much in the mind as in the body—focus, a growth-mindset and resilience are key. Nikki Oliver, co-founder of Fort Myers' World Championship Taekwondo training center shares the lessons she's learned on the mat.

BY June 28, 2024

Nikki Oliver has broken most of her fingers at least once. She’s partially torn her Achilles tendon, meniscus and PCL, and she can’t remember exactly how many times an opponent has displaced her nose.

But, you should see the other guy.

With her 5-foot-9-inch frame, the fifth-level black belt taekwondo master packs an impressive punch—and kick, knee strike and low block. Early on, the lifelong athlete-turned-Team-USA coach learned injuries are part of the job. Conquering the fear of getting hurt has been her greatest victory.

After competing on the international level (she represented her mother’s native Puerto Rico for five years and earned silver at the 2011 Pan American Games) and nearly qualifying for the Olympics in 2012, Nikki turned to coaching. She carries the physical prowess and mental lessons from her competition years into her day-to-day life as a trainer for the national teams she shapes for the world stage and her students at World Championship Taekwondo (WCT). The Fort Myers’ dojang (training center) she owns with her husband, Toby, a grandmaster in the sport—a large, matted space with freestanding punching bags, headgear, staff weapons and nunchucks lining the perimeter—is worlds away from where she started.

Nikki’s taekwondo career began, of all things, with a kick. Not on the sparring mat, though, but inside a dance studio. During 3-year-old Nikki’s dance class, she kicked her instructor. “‘Welp,’ my dad thought, ‘I better enroll her in taekwondo,’” Nikki recalls.
The full-contact sport that originated in Korea is known for its swift, powerful kicks, dynamic movements, and emphasis on discipline and mental resilience—an ideal recipe for Nikki, the strong-willed toddler with an uninhibited desire to punt.

Team USA coach and lifelong competitor Nikki Oliver brings dynamic training to Fort Myers’ World Championship Taekwondo (WCT).

Despite her successes on the senior level, as a junior, Nikki was not considered the best on her West Palm Beach team, a co-ed group that included, “girls so mean that we could scrap with guys.” In competition, while her teammates racked up the golds, she couldn’t medal higher than silver. She recognized her biggest roadblock was mental: She was afraid of getting hurt. Then, Nikki let go of her inhibitions and started fighting more aggressively. “I threw caution to the wind and accepted that injuries, broken bones and bloody noses were going to come,” she says.

Her successes piled up. Nikki was selected to Puerto Rico’s national team and earned the title of master with a fifth-degree black belt. She was one win away from earning a spot at the 2012 London Olympics, losing a devastating make-it-or-break-it final match in regional qualifiers. The injuries came, too—all those broken fingers, ligament tears and dislocations. Up until her retirement from competition, she broke at least one toe annually. Once, she took a ferocious kick to the back from a male sparring partner in Switzerland; her shoulder got punched out of its socket. To this day, her left arm doesn’t lift extensively above her head.

Were the injuries worth it? “Absolutely,” Nikki says. “With taekwondo, there is something freeing about knowing that you can handle yourself, both on and off the mat.”

From building fearlessness to maintaining a healthy body and mind, Nikki believes taekwondo can be a model for life.

Despite leaving the competitive ranks, the work ethic and grit she gained as an athlete have not waned. Her training may not be as voluminous as the three-a-day sessions she kept during her peak training, but the athlete’s mindset remains ingrained, whether it’s during her strength-training sessions three times per week or during her daily 2-mile runs with her Husky, Lou. “When I’m running, it’s as fast as I can,” she says. At WCT, she’ll jump on the mat and spar with the High Octane team of competitors with Olympic aspirations. “When I’m at the gym, it’s me versus me,” Nikki says. “When I’m kicking with the guys, I’m giving them my best version. And, I expect them to meet that level of excellence or effort.”

Her coaching style caught the eye of various Team USA taekwondo groups. The USA Taekwondo Cadet National Team asked her to train the group for the World Taekwondo Cadet Championships in Bosnia last year; they took home four medals—double the total from the year prior. Nikki went on to work with the Pan American championship group, where she was honored as Best Female Coach, and she trained players at the Olympic Prep Camp for the Paris games this summer.

Known by students for her fierce, no-excuses coaching style, Nikki models a new generation of coaching. She’s eager to see more female trainers entering the ring and be a face of representation for other girls and women wanting to get into the sport. Occasionally, she’s bucked uniform norms to don heels or skirts at competition events to showcase femininity and inclusion. And, while Nikki admits training under her can be tough, her female perspective adds a level of sensitivity she didn’t frequently see growing up. For one, Nikki refuses to have athletes cut weight—the historically pervasive practice in combat sports, where players lose weight drastically over short periods of time to compete in lighter, more favorable divisions. Nikki insists her athletes, male or female, will always fight at their natural weight. “My athletes are healthy; they probably don’t even know how much they weigh,” she says.

“When I’m at the gym, it’s me versus me.”
— Nikki Oliver

And, Nikki is just getting started. As an athlete who has dedicated her life to taekwondo, now is her time to show a new generation that, with the right team around you, the sport can be a model for life, one roundhouse kick at a time.

Photography by Brian Tietz

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