A week later, Maggie Nichols still couldn’t find any words that were up to the task. All the ones she had tried out — like crushed, and devastated, and heartbroken — didn’t quite convey how the gymnast from Little Canada felt when her final college season was cut short.
It was much easier for Nichols to come up with the perfect label for her four years at Oklahoma. Thankful was the word she came back to again and again Friday, when she reflected on a career that will go down as perhaps the best in college gymnastics history. Though her time as an athlete ended nine days ago, when the NCAA canceled championships in winter and spring sports because of concerns about the coronavirus, Nichols chose to think about what she accomplished and not what was taken away.
She completed her career with two NCAA all-around titles and four event championships. The Sooners won two national team titles during her tenure. Fittingly, in her final meet on March 6, Nichols scored a perfect 10 on vault — giving her 22 perfect scores for her career, a program record.
“I don’t think I could have ended any better,” said Nichols, whose team ended the season ranked No. 1. “I had a perfect 10, and some other pretty great routines. That eased my mind with the whole situation.
“It’s hard to think about moving on. But after everything that happened, I took a step back. I’ll look at my last meet, and my last season, and my whole career, and I don’t think I could ask for anything more, even though I didn’t get that chance to go to NCAAs.”
Nichols landed at Oklahoma after another disappointment, when a knee injury ruined her hopes of making the 2016 Olympic team. A gold medalist in the team competition at the 2015 world championships, she retired from elite gymnastics, then found her greatest joy in the college version of the sport.
Just before her sophomore season, it was revealed that Nichols was the first athlete to tell USA Gymnastics about abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar. With the scandal still unfolding, she put aside the emotion and excelled, winning the NCAA all-around title and capturing the NCAA Inspiration Award for her courage.
Her final regular-season meet was supposed to have been at Maturi Pavilion, a sold-out homecoming against the Gophers. When Nichols learned it was canceled, she cried with her teammates, then took a few days to decompress with friends and family. Before long, she was able to find solace in the bigger picture.
“My last meet was senior night, and a lot of teams didn’t get that,” she said. “I’m forever thankful I got a senior night, and it was one of the best meets I ever had. I left everything out on the floor.”
If the NCAA extends an extra year of eligibility to winter-sport athletes, Nichols said she would have “a lot of thinking to do.’’ She already was emotionally prepared for her career to end, and she needs to allow her body to heal after the punishment inflicted by years in the gym.
Besides, she is not leaving the sport entirely. Nichols will serve the Sooners as a graduate assistant coach next season, while she continues studying toward a career in sports broadcasting. She also is the subject of a documentary film about the Nassar scandal, “Athlete A,’’ set for release this spring.
When she was younger, Nichols said, she told her club coach — Mike Hunger of Twin City Twisters in Champlin — that she hoped to score a perfect 10 once in college. With 22 of them in her pocket, she’s ready for what’s next.
“I look back on my career, and I just smile,” she said. “Even though I went through the lowest of the lows, I also went through the highest of the highs. It was a dream.”