She had flipped and tumbled around his gym since she was 6 years old, long before anyone could see where Maggie Nichols was headed. Once her true potential began to shine, though, Mike Hunger had to concede a hard truth: She had probably outgrown the Twin City Twisters.
Hunger's club in Champlin didn't have a program to train elite gymnasts in 2009. So he recommended that Maggie's mother, Gina Nichols, take her daughter to a gym known for developing Olympic prospects. "I asked her, 'Have you looked at Chow's, or Memmel's?' " Hunger recalled, mentioning two of the Midwest's most prominent clubs. "She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Maggie's got three brothers. My husband is a doctor, and I'm a surgical nurse. We're not moving.' "
That day, Hunger said, he vowed he would do everything within his power to ensure Nichols could go as far as her talent could carry her. With two medals from the world championships already in her pocket, she takes another stride Friday toward her sport's ultimate goal: the Olympics. Nichols, 18, is among 14 gymnasts invited to the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., to compete for five places on the U.S. team for the Rio Games.
Nichols' chances of making the team were complicated by a knee injury in April that required arthroscopic surgery and six weeks of recovery. She returned to competition at last month's national championships and performed well enough to move on to the trials, where the Olympic team will be named Sunday at the end of two days of competition.
As Nichols developed into a world-class gymnast, her gym's fledgling elite program grew, too. Coach Sarah Jantzi has accompanied Nichols to USA Gymnastics' monthly camps at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, for several years, soaking up knowledge from the country's top coaches and bringing it home to share with other athletes. The Twin City Twisters sent four members to compete at nationals last month, the second-highest contingent of any gym in America.
Nichols said what she has brought to the gym is dwarfed by what it has given to her. Last week, well-wishers packed the facility to see her off to San Jose, bringing signs, hand-drawn pictures and gifts that included an Olympic torch made of paper.
"Everyone in this program has meant so much to me," said Nichols, who signed autographs for nearly an hour after the send-off. "The coaches push me to be the best I can be. The girls always have my back, and they're always cheering for me. Even the parents text me and give me messages of support.
"Even though I was the first one in the elite program, I knew these were good coaches who knew what they were doing. I always knew this was the right place for me."
Blazing an inspirational trail
The crowd that came to see Nichols last Thursday filled the gym's large parking lot, with cars spilling over to a nearby street and a strip mall a block away. Toddlers carried American flags, and parents wore a variety of "Team Maggie" T-shirts. Someone had written RIO on a white board, under a tangle of red, white and blue streamers, and a sea of signs bore slogans such as "Let's Go Swaggie Maggie" and "Go Make Us Proud."
As Nichols performed the routines she would take to the trials, fans chanted her name, climbing on the balance beam and a stairwell to get a better view. Dozens stayed afterward to have Nichols sign their leotards or to get a photo with her.
Gina Nichols couldn't make it that day, but she has attended several similar gatherings — including one before last fall's world championships, when Maggie helped the U.S. win team gold and earned a bronze on floor exercise. "It chokes me up every time," Gina said. "Maggie has given up so much and worked so hard, and this club has given her the most wonderful support."
The Twin City Twisters were known for having excellent Junior Olympic-level programs when Nichols was invited to her first Karolyi Ranch camp at age 12. USA Gymnastics created a new elite athlete-development model in 2001, in which gymnasts train at their home gyms with their own coaches. Once a month, the gymnasts and coaches gather at the ranch for a camp led by national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
When Nichols decided to continue training in Minnesota, Hunger asked Jantzi to head up the Twisters' new elite program. With every visit to the ranch, Jantzi learned more from Karolyi and other coaches who were guiding Olympians and world champions.
"They helped me develop as a coach, right alongside my athlete," Jantzi said. "I picked up something new every time I went, and it elevated my expectations for the kids back home. It helped push them to be better. When you're seeing 20 of the best gymnasts in the world, you come back and you recognize, 'OK, that's not good enough.' "
The camps also sharpened Nichols by regularly putting her in a hypercompetitive, pressure-filled environment, under the microscope of the exacting Karolyi. That brought benefits to her Twisters teammates, too, as they observed the Little Canada gymnast working to perfect difficult skills.
"It's so inspiring," said Abby Paulson of Coon Rapids, who joined Nichols, Olivia Trautman of Champlin and Tori Tatum of Chanhassen in the field at the national championships. "She's a great example. She's shown us that hard work can get you where you want to go."
Turning dreams into reality
A member of the U.S. senior national team since 2012, Nichols has risen to the highest ranks of her sport over the past two years. She was the silver medalist in the all-around competition at the national championships in 2015, behind best friend and global phenom Simone Biles, and bronze medalist in 2014. The only U.S. gymnast to compete in all four events in the team final at the world championships, Nichols' style and personality has made her a celebrity and fan favorite.
Known for her sassy social media handles — @MagsGotSwag12 on Twitter and swaggiemaggie2016 on Instagram — she has 122,000 followers between the two accounts. Hunger said the attention she has brought to the gym has lengthened the list of athletes who want to join the club, and even coaches from other clubs have told him they are rooting for Nichols.
Tatum said it still feels "a little weird" to see Nichols on television, or to have friends at school marvel at the idea that she knows an international star. Tatum, Paulson and other teammates said they will be nervous watching the Olympic trials, but Nichols is finding strength in the outpouring of support.
"I'm hearing from people on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, texts, calls," Nichols said. "To have that in the back of my head, to know how many people are behind me, it's amazing. I just want to make everyone proud."
After the trials — and, perhaps, the Olympics — Nichols will move on to the University of Oklahoma. Hunger expects her loyalty to the Twin City Twisters will have a lasting impact. Already, he is planning the next steps for the club's other elite gymnasts — who now know how far they can soar while staying at home.
"For our elites, and for the little kids who are just beginning, Maggie gives them hope," Jantzi said. "This can happen. You can become an Olympian. It's not a far-fetched dream, it's reality. And you can do it right here in Minnesota."