Her habit is to steal a glance at the scoreboard, to know exactly where she stands after every flip and twist. Maggie Nichols resisted that impulse last weekend, forcing her mind to remain clear amid the chalky haze of the NCAA championships.
The gymnast from Little Canada has become an expert at blocking out the noise and the nerves. That tight focus carried her this year, after being swept up in the darkest time of her sport’s history, and she turned to it again in the biggest meet of her two seasons at the University of Oklahoma.
By the time Nichols let go of the bars and stuck her final landing, she was so locked in she didn’t realize what she had done. Her coach had to tell her.
She “came up to me and said, ‘You won the all-around,’ ” Nichols said. “It was an incredible moment for me. I’ll never forget it.”
The way the Sooners sophomore won her national title last weekend in St. Louis — a perfect 10 on her last routine, setting an NCAA record for highest all-around score — put an exclamation point on an extraordinary season. Nichols began the year by revealing she was the first gymnast to report abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team physician convicted of serial sexual abuse, to the organization’s leadership three years ago. She ended it in triumph, with a string of performances that stamped her as one of the greatest collegiate gymnasts in history.
Her coach, K.J. Kindler, said Nichols “felt free again” after her revelation on Jan. 9, clearing the way for a record-setting season. At the NCAA championships, Nichols also was co-champion on floor exercise and uneven bars and placed second on balance beam. With eight perfect scores this season, she completed her second “gym slam” — earning 10s on every event — and is the first gymnast ever to repeat that feat.
“Gymnasts dream of having storybook years like she’s had,” Kindler said. “What some would hope for in a whole career has happened to Maggie in just two years.”
Yet Kindler said Nichols’ season will be remembered for more than her elegance on the beam and her high-flying sass on the floor. Already one of the most admired athletes in her sport, Nichols’ role in bringing Nassar to justice brought her even greater respect and gratitude.
“It’s been an incredible season in a lot of ways,” said Nichols, 20. “Going through that hard time in January and overcoming that, I think I grew stronger. The way I bounced back, and achieving the things I did while going through that, I’m just proud of how I handled it.
“I think all of this has changed me as a person, in a good way. I’ve grown as a woman; I feel very strong, very independent. And now I have a platform. I want to do everything in my power to change what’s going on in gymnastics.”
A member of the U.S. team that won gold at the 2015 world championships, Nichols was a favorite to make the 2016 Olympic team until a knee injury interrupted her training. She began her career at Oklahoma shortly after the Olympic trials, and college gymnastics has proved to be the ideal fit.
Being part of a team in a supportive, all-for-one environment has made the sport more fun for her. That helped Nichols lead the Sooners to the NCAA team championship in 2017 and a runner-up finish this season.
“I can’t even express how much I love it,” Nichols said. “All these girls are like my sisters. Every practice and every competition, we’re doing it together.”
In addition to her three titles at the NCAA meet, Nichols was named a first-team All-America on bars, floor, balance beam and all-around. Her achievements earned her a second consecutive nomination for the Honda Sport Award, given to the top athlete in each of 12 NCAA sports.
She entered the season pain free after another knee surgery last summer. Emotionally, Nichols was still carrying the burden of Nassar’s abuse. She is among more than 150 young women who have accused him of sexually molesting them under the guise of medical treatment, a scandal that exploded last winter when several athletes spoke publicly about the abuse and USA Gymnastics’ delayed response.
In a powerful January statement, Nichols revealed she was the “Athlete A” mentioned in legal filings surrounding the Nassar case.
“I am making the decision to tell my traumatic story and hope to join the forces with my friends and teammates to bring about true change,” Nichols wrote. “Up until now, I was identified as Athlete A by USA gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Michigan State University. I want everyone to know that he did not do this to Athlete A, he did it to Maggie Nichols.”
Nichols’ detailed account of the abuse, which began when she was 15, was read at a hearing where Nassar was sentenced to serve up to 175 years in prison.
Kindler said Nichols was torn about going public, worried about how people might respond. While she drew strength from her teammates, family and friends, the outpouring of support from strangers left her happily surprised.
“Once it was done, you could see a sense of relief over her whole demeanor, her body, her soul,” Kindler said. “Any time you go through what she’s gone through, and then you take the next step to let everybody know that about you, that is very courageous and very brave.
“I really think she’s grown leaps and bounds from that moment. She’s admired by everyone in the gymnastics community and far beyond. By her speaking out and showing that bravery, other people have gained courage. She has given hope and inspiration to so many.”
Healing her sport
Brenna Dowell, a teammate of Nichols with the Sooners and the U.S. senior national team, said what Nichols has achieved in two college seasons is “crazy.”
“One of the cool things about being in the gym with Maggie is that she’s always working toward perfection, every single day,” Dowell said. “She’s never satisfied with anything less than the best, and she makes everyone else want to work toward the same thing.”
While Nichols has earned praise for her role in exposing Nassar, Dowell said she is playing an equally important part in moving gymnastics beyond the scandal. She is among her sport’s most popular athletes, thanks to an engaging social media presence and her charisma as a performer.
On Twitter, Nichols delights 41,300 followers by interacting with fans and posting uplifting daily messages. Kindler said that everywhere the Sooners go, people line up to get Nichols’ autograph or take a picture with her. Highlights of her routines show up on ESPN, and Kindler hears young girls cite her as a role model.
“She’s really helping to grow the sport, which is so important at a time when we have all this drama going on,” Dowell said. “Having Maggie as a survivor, someone who is so positive and strong, it really shows what gymnastics can do for girls.”
Four days after her all-around title last week, Nichols was already looking for more. She was disappointed the Sooners were unable to claim their third consecutive NCAA team championship, edged out by UCLA on the final routine of the meet. She also is “heartbroken” by the stain on her sport’s image.
Even that ugly chapter, Kindler said, could not dim the quality that truly sets Nichols apart: a love for gymnastics that “just bubbles over,” giving her more to fight for after a nearly perfect season.
“I always want to do something bigger and better than I’ve done before,” Nichols said. “I really want to be a leader on this team and win two more national championships. I’d like to set the bar a little higher for NCAA gymnastics. And I’ll do everything I can to help my sport. I hope I can make a change.”