More than Swag: Nichols leaves indelible mark on gymnastics
The end was supposed to include one last run at perfection. One final salute to the judges. One lingering wave to a packed arena followed by a group hug with her Oklahoma teammates, preferably atop the podium at the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships.
Instead, the end of Maggie Nichols’ remarkable career arrived quietly in the middle of an otherwise routine practice a month ago. One minute, the 22-year-old senior was working on the beam preparing for a homecoming meet in Minnesota. The next, coach K.J. Kindler was telling the Sooners their season was over due to the pandemic.
In an instant, Oklahoma’s shot at a third national title in four years vanished. So did the opportunity for one the most important athletes of her generation — in ways that stretch far beyond the competition floor — to say goodbye on her own terms.
“I felt wiped,” Nichols told The Associated Press. “I was so devastated. I’ve done gymnastics my whole life. Having it cut short in the snap of two fingers. ... It still doesn’t feel real.”
Nichols is trying to remain upbeat. She’s incapable of doing otherwise.
The cancellation came after Oklahoma’s final home meet against Michigan, a night in which she posted the high score in all four events. Nichols clutched roses while bidding an emotional farewell to the crowd at Lloyd Noble Center, the place where she rediscovered her passion for a sport that frequently takes more than it gives.
The smile on her face provided a sharp contrast to the uncertainty she felt when she came to Oklahoma in the fall of 2016, drained emotionally and physically from years in the exacting crucible that is competing at the elite level for USA Gymnastics.
Nichols’ steady performance in the team finals at the 2015 world championships helped power the U.S. to a gold medal. It’s a performance made all the more remarkable considering the turmoil going on just beneath the surface.
Like other national team members at the time, Nichols was frequently treated by national team doctor Larry Nassar. Though she felt “uncomfortable” almost from her first encounter with Nassar, she kept quiet for months.
“I was 15 years old,” Nichols said. “I was driving to make a world championship team. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know. Once I realized what he was doing was wrong. I never wanted to see him again.”
In June 2015 she mentioned her concern over Nassar’s behavior to a teammate. Her coach overheard the conversation and passed Nichols’ concerns to the hierarchy at USA Gymnastics. A scandal that has rocked one of the marquee programs of the U.S. Olympic movement was born.
Five years later, Nassar is serving essentially a life sentence after pleading guilty to sexual assault and child pornography crimes. USA Gymnastics, the USOPC and Michigan State are still trying to emerge from the the fallout after hundreds of athletes said they were abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.
“It has empowered so many different athletes, male and female,” said Nichols, who dropped her anonymity in January 2018 to help encourage other Nassar survivors to speak up. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me in saying ‘Because you came forward, I was able to come forward.’”
Not that becoming the face of a movement was ever part of the plan. Four years ago, Nichols was in the mix to make the 2016 Olympic team until a knee injury slowed her progress. She finished sixth in the all-around at the Olympic trials and didn’t crack the top three in any event. She was named a non-traveling alternate. The pain lingered when she arrived at Oklahoma that fall.
“I didn’t want to go into the gym,” Nichols said. I wasn’t enjoying it as much. My body was struggling.”
The team-oriented college atmosphere changed everything. The breezy confidence the athlete whose Instagram pages asks you to “Call Me Swags” returned.
So did her dominance. Nichols captured 11 NCAA trophies, including the all-around title in 2018 and 2019. She and other Nassar survivors were presented with the Arthur Ashe Award at the 2018 ESPYs. That same year she became the first gymnast to be given the NCAA Inspiration Award.
Has she ever thought about what might have been if she hadn’t gotten hurt in early 2016? Of course. Do her supporters wonder if her role in exposing Nassar played into the decision to keep her off the Olympic team? Yes. Nichols, however, insists she wouldn’t change any of it.
“It’s been incredible,” Nichols said. “I’ve enjoyed every second of my college career. Even though I wasn’t as famous as girls that made the Olympic team, I’ve been able to use platform I do have, even if it’s not as big.”
It’s a platform that would have likely gotten one last boost if the Sooners were spending this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, attempting to defend their NCAA title. The pandemic put a halt to any fairy-tale ending.
Then again, maybe in a small way, it’s fitting. Turning disappointment into triumph has become kind of her thing.
She plans to enroll in graduate school next fall, take a stab at being a volunteer assistant coach and try to land an internship that will let her break into sports broadcasting. Asked if there’s one thing she regrets, Nichols joked she wished she’d have known that her last turn on beam was, well, her last turn ever. Maybe it would have been a little cleaner.
Otherwise, she is at peace, her legacy secure in ways she never imagined.
“I feel like people are going to remember me as both the gymnast and also Athlete A ,” she said. “I think I left my mark on both sides. I think people, they’re going to remember the impact I made on gymnastics and sparking a light on something so terrible.”
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