It’s 34 minutes into an already revealing discussion about her upbringing, the pressures she felt and the anger she carried into adulthood when Nikki Spoelstra suddenly goes quasi-Oppenheimer, dropping a truth bomb that brings the interview to a temporary halt. For the next half-hour, the digital recorder goes dark inside Soff’s Lobby Lounge at Turnberry Resort & Spa as Nikki delves into off-the-record territory.
For years, Nikki has been identified with the man she describes as an amazing father to her three young children, as well as a basketball genius, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
But this day belongs to Nikki. It’s her time to confidently rock stylish looks during a photo shoot that lights up the resort. It’s her moment to peel the onion and shed light on a past that, by her own admission, is far from perfect. It’s her day to break down walls. To cry. To empower. Over the course of the next hour, with the recorder back on, Nikki is more than just an open book. There’s a sense of wonder in her eyes, as if she’s seeing her own life in focus for the first time.
Perhaps she is.
To that end, her journey of self-discovery—one that continues to be fueled, in part, by “the space of honesty, vulnerability [and] creativity” that she launched two years ago, her popular podcast “The Know with Nikki Spo”—recalls another recent summer blockbuster.
“It’s literally impossible to be a woman,” America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, says during the inspired monologue in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie that instantly went viral. “Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.”
For too long, a version of that sentiment resonated with Nikki. But so much of what’s happening in her life now, starting with the sobriety she’s embraced for the past three-plus years, doesn’t just feel right.
It feels transformative.
Asked to compare the South Florida girl born Nikki Sapp with the 36-year-old woman she is in this moment, the former Miami Heat cheerleader, art gallery director and schoolteacher doesn’t hesitate.
“Nikki Sapp was starving for love and attention and affection and hope,” she says. “The biggest difference today is that I know myself. And I love myself, flaws and all. I love who I’ve become.
“I want women everywhere to know that they are capable beyond measure—that they should always strive for more in the event that they’re not happy where they are. I’m not just talking about [romantic] relationships—I’m talking about friendships, jobs. My influence isn’t that I married somebody powerful. My influence is that I’m true to myself. And I want the women that I come into contact with to be true to themselves too.”
As if to further emphasize the point, Nikki notes that she stopped all contact with her mom, an estrangement that lasted eight years until her death last winter at age 73. Nikki did arrange for her mom to be in a nursing home, paid for by the Spoelstras, so she could receive the medical care she needed toward the end. “But an [in-person] relationship with her was no longer healthy for me,” Nikki says.
There was a time, toward the end of Pan Am’s run as “the world’s most experienced airline,” when Nikki’s mother was living the high life—and loving every second of it. The glamorous world of globetrotting had given her an identity, one that she cherished. But she lost that identity soon after Delta acquired Pan Am in 1991. With her flight attendant days behind her, Nikki’s mom began living a different kind of high life.
“She drank jugs of cheap wine,” Nikki says. “My dad was a firefighter in Miami Beach, so with his schedule he wasn’t around for all of it. But I have memories as early as age 4 of Mom falling asleep drunk, and me making my own dinner and taking care of the house at night.
“There were parts of my childhood that were wonderful. I was an only child, and my parents were supportive. Mom was a functioning alcoholic; she came to all my dance recitals, and she was even a substitute teacher at my elementary school. But it was Jekyll and Hyde; everything changed when the sun went down. There was a lot of loneliness. And feelings of having no respect for authority. It shaped who I became. And it shaped my coping mechanisms.”
In middle school, she coped for a period of time by harming herself. Nikki would hold a lighter to a pair of tweezers and scald her skin with the red-hot metal. “I just wanted to feel physical pain because I needed the emotional pain to make sense,” she says.
Though competitive dance and cheerleading at Top Gun All Stars in Miami provided a heathier outlet into her years at Killian Senior High School, Nikki couldn’t escape the not-so-subtle messaging that led to a simmering brew of resentment, sadness and rage.
“There was this pressure on me to be beautiful,” Nikki says. “Especially with my mom and [the way she conflated beauty and relevance] as a flight attendant with Pan Am. She was a gorgeous woman, a total knockout. So, now, this was my gift. College wasn’t important. Being attractive was how I was going to survive in the world.”
But survival wasn’t without episodes that further undermined Nikki’s sense of self.
“Around age 12, I was being bullied because my ears stuck out. Eventually, my parents paid for a procedure that allowed the ears to fold back and look normal. But prior to that, we’d pin my ears back with double-sided tape so they wouldn’t stick out. We’d laugh about it. But it wasn’t funny to me. And it hurt.
“Parents do their best, and I’ve reconciled this now. There’s no blueprint on how to raise children. But I remember being super resentful about this in my 20s, thinking ‘Why couldn’t they have taught me to be beautiful on the inside!’ ”
Though her mom had small windows of sobriety, Nikki says they were short-lived. Her mom didn’t attend her wedding to Erik in 2016. And she never met Nikki’s two boys—Santiago (age 5) and Dante (who turns 3 in December). Ruby, the Spoelstras’ youngest, turns 1 this month.
On Her Own
There’s a street-smart quality to Nikki that she carries as a badge of honor. She started working in her teens at places like Cold Stone Creamery, P.F. Chang’s and Coach, learning early lessons about saving and budgeting. Not that she had a choice. After her parents divorced, Nikki was living with her father. But when he remarried, Nikki found herself in a “Cinderella-like situation.” The new wife asked Nikki to leave, and then she moved her own family into the house.
Nikki also was told to pay for her own college. At times, she says, she held three jobs to cover her monthly expenses while working toward a degree in art history (with a focus on photography, contemporary art and Latin American studies) at Florida International University. Starting at 18, the years she’d spent perfecting her passion paid dividends when she began a three-season run in the mid-2000s as a Miami Heat dancer.
Even then, as the world seemed to be opening up for her, the past was never far from her present.
“During the years with the Heat, I was this platinum blonde with [a curvaceous figure],” Nikki says. “And I remember being at FIU and asking students after class if they wanted to study together. I’d get that look, like, ‘No, not with this bimbo.’ I was building some confidence then because I was doing well in school [she graduated magna cum laude], but it played into one of my biggest insecurities—that I’m not intelligent enough.”
No Holding Back
It’s no coincidence that Nikki invited Lauren Book, the Florida senator and founder of Lauren’s Kids, to be her guest on the premiere episode of “The Know,” which aired in April 2021. Both women could speak from experience about the topic of childhood trauma. Book, who was sexually abused for six years by her nanny, created the nonprofit organization Lauren’s Kids to help prevent such horrors from happening. Nikki says she experienced her own episode of sexual abuse as a youngster, one she classifies on the less-severe side without going into detail. Still, Nikki never told a soul about the incident until she was 27.
“Part of what happens when you stuff these memories down, or you don’t confront them, is that you learn not to trust yourself,” Nikki says. “That’s a huge betrayal to yourself. I went through my life not trusting my own memory.”
When she finally opened up about the incident, she dealt with another betrayal.
“People doubted me,” she says. “I think it’s two things. First, people are uncomfortable; they don’t know how to hold that information. But there’s also a discrediting that happens, like, ‘Oh, it couldn’t have been that bad.’ Another guest on the podcast, [trauma psychologist] Andrea Loeb, talks about how it’s not necessarily the severity of the trauma that determines whether a person is capable of healing; it’s whether they’re believed. I felt invalidated.”
In the bigger picture, Nikki wanted to set a definitive tone with the debut episode of her podcast. This wasn’t going to be a fluffy Real Housewives-style joyride. The first 110 podcasts recorded through early August served to drive that point home.
State senate candidate Janelle Perez spoke about surviving Stage IV follicular lymphoma—at age 28. Virginia Akar, CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Miami, addressed education equality for young females in underserved communities. Will Beck opened up to listeners about surviving the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Other experts discussed everything from reclaiming your sexual power to creating healthy habits with food to maintaining your mental health.
More than once over the first few years, Nikki also has shed candid light on what she describes as the beginning of a great awakening in her life, an eyes-wide-open healing journey that is allowing her, at long last, to put the past in perspective.
Her own sobriety.
Nikki describes herself, prior to April 18, 2020, as a combination social drinker, binge drinker and closet drinker. When word broke about her relationship with Erik in the mid-2010s, one of the first stories that appeared was a gossip column piece that included Nikki’s mug shot from a DUI incident in her 20s.
“At the time the story came out, I was teaching [at SLAM! Miami, a sports leadership and management charter school],” Nikki says. “It was shameful. But I was also being harassed—like, how can you let a drunk driver become a teacher? After we married, I thought, I can’t ever publicly humiliate my husband. But after the kids are in bed, I can have a drink. I was part of the whole Mommy wine culture, which is so bad.
“I was becoming just like my mother.”
Asked what led to her increased drinking, Nikki mentions the post-partum anxiety she suffered after Santiago was born in 2018. And the challenges that come with being the wife of a high-profile professional. “It’s beautiful to be married to someone who is so passionate about the work they do; it’s like being married to an artist,” she says. “But having a family changes everything. There’s so much travel. Families aren’t together for holidays. For birthdays. Part of why I was numbing was because I was so lonely.”
In the same breath, Nikki is quick to acknowledge the broader canvas and her role in it. It was easier to drink than to deal with the complexities of her upbringing and the baggage that weighed on her.
“My life had become unmanageable,” she says. “Anybody from the outside would be like, ‘This chick’s life is perfect.’ But my inner world, my emotional world, was crumbling. I was stressed. I was upset. I couldn’t control my feelings. And, at times, I didn’t want to exist. I had two children then, and a small part of me is thinking, ‘I’m such a terrible person that my kids are better off without me.’ ”
The simmering inside finally reached a boil on that mid-April night in 2020. Nikki recalls running through the house, screaming obscenities. The next day, she admitted to herself that she was powerless over alcohol.
Months earlier, Nikki had met a woman who she felt was “pure magic in human form.” Until they became casual friends, Nikki didn’t know the woman was an addict with 13 years of sobriety. After hitting her “rock bottom,” Nikki called the woman.
“When she arrived at my house, she said, ‘It’s crazy that you called me. I was just contemplating taking a gummy and breaking my sobriety. You just saved me.’
“The universe works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?”
Nikki’s friend paid it forward. She’s been her sponsor ever since.
Over 90 days, Nikki attended some 90 meetings for recovering alcoholics. In addition, she began working a 12-step program. It’s a defining period, she says, that was again met with skepticism and invalidation.
“I don’t think any of the loved ones in my life actually believed that I was an alcoholic. I think they just thought that I was crazy. And I felt like I was crazy,” she says. “But I had legitimate reasons to be angry. I didn’t need to be shamed for having big feelings. I needed help coping with them.
“As I got sober, I started to rediscover who I am and what I’m willing to accept in my life. What boundaries I’m willing to have placed on me. And what boundaries I’m not willing to have placed on me. I discovered that I have to be authentic to myself. And if I can’t be myself in a certain environment, then that’s not an environment I need to be in.”
Her Time to Shine
When Nikki calls herself “the baddest bitch I know,” it’s not because she’s ready to throw down inside a UFC cage. She’s immensely proud of being present and resolute for her children, of taking accountability for and addressing her past, of making amends for the mistakes she’s made and the people she’s hurt, of strengthening the foundation of her sobriety—and doing it all while handling the emotional cards life has dealt over the past few years.
Even though they were estranged, her mom’s death in the winter of 2022 felt like a “final blow,” Nikki says. “There was sadness in that I never got to have the mom that I wanted.”
In March of last year, the day after his fourth birthday, Santiago underwent surgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. He’d been complaining for too long about flares of stomach pain. Nikki advocated for her son after reading about intussusception, a potentially life-threatening condition where a portion of the intestine slips into another section, like how a telescope collapses into itself. She pushed for and received an ultrasound prescription for the next time Santiago complained of the pain.
Sure enough, Santiago had dead intestinal tissue due to intussusception. The surgery at Nicklaus to remove it revealed a mass that, per standard procedure, was sent to pathology. A week later, an oncologist spoke to the Spoelstras about treatment options for the unthinkable. Their son had been diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Santiago underwent months of chemotherapy treatment at Nicklaus.
“He’s good now; he’s healthy,” Nikki says. “He’s like a little old soul. He understood everything that was happening. He’d say, ‘I’m taking medicine that makes my hair fall out—but my hair is going to grow back even better!’ ”
Amid everything, Nikki was pregnant with Ruby, who entered the world in late September. Becoming a mother was never the end-all, be-all for Nikki that it is for some women. She didn’t feel equipped, given her upbringing. But today, she says, “the toolbox is filling up.”
“I’m not a perfect mom. I wasn’t a perfect daughter or friend. But I’m working on those imperfections—and talking about them,” she says. “I’ve always had a voice, but somehow it felt stifled. Now, I have no restrictions. I can say whatever I want.
“I hope that people feel empowered by the things we [address] on the podcast. I want to normalize conversations and destigmatize certain topics. Hopefully, we’re helping people in some capacity—even if it’s just one person. Maybe that one person is me. If so, I’m good with that.”
Nikki pauses and wipes away a tear.
“I cry for this version of myself that I am today,” she says. “Because I’m so happy. I have a second chance at my own life.”
A few minutes later, the digital recorder is turned off. Nikki notices this. As she stretches her legs, a playful smile appears.
“So,” she says, “did I give you a good interview?”
Photography by Eduardo Schneider
Shot on location at JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa in Aventura
Hair/makeup by Grace Aguado at Your Face by Grace
Special thanks to Emily Quintero, Cari Farinas and the staff at Turnberry