University of Oklahoma
Courageous: The Maggie Nichols story
Her gymnastics career came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end Thursday as the NCAA canceled winter and spring sports, but as Maggie Nichols walks away, she leaves a legacy that endures far beyond her years competing in Norman, Oklahoma. Her story is about more than being one of the greatest college gymnasts ever — it is one of courage and resilience. The Daily’s enterprise editor George Stoia met with Nichols for six interviews throughout the spring and interviewed her family multiple times, including sitting with them for a meet, to tell her in-depth story.
By George Stoia
“What did you do today that your future self will be proud of?”
– Maggie Nichols
Maggie Nichols stares down the 82-foot runway at the springboard that is waiting to vault her high into the air. Across the Lloyd Noble Center, her mom, Gina, sits on the edge of her seat. She is two rows off the arena floor, her back hunched and her fingers tightly interlocked as her left foot nervously taps the cement.
Nichols explodes toward and onto the springboard. She does a roundoff back handspring onto the table and flips into mid-air. In this moment, Gina’s foot freezes, her fingers squeeze tighter and her back straightens.
She’s not thinking about Larry Nassar or her daughter being labeled “Athlete A” or being considered perhaps the greatest college gymnast of all time. All this mother is thinking about is her daughter coming down, being OK, sticking the landing.
As she has throughout her life on and off the mat, Nichols delivers.
Nichols lands perfectly, her arms shooting toward the ceiling as a smile emerges across the 22-year-old’s face. Simultaneously, her mom’s arms also shoot into the air when she jumps out of her seat. Gina turns and says with a laugh, “I think that was pretty good, don’t you?”
What she, and everyone else, didn’t realize on that Saturday in late February, was that it would be one of Nichols’ last times to perform. Twelve days later, her career came to an abrupt end after the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports due to the rapid global spread of COVID-19. Nichols, along with her team, was informed in the middle of practice. They were readying for what would be a homecoming meet for Nichols in Minnesota ahead of a postseason championship push.
Nichols, her teammates and the program were all devastated.
“I’m done,” Nichols somberly said over the phone to her mom that afternoon. “My career is over.”
By Saturday, she had posted her farewell to competition, saying she’d change nothing and do it all again if she could, and challenging other athletes to savor the struggle, success and failure. In a moment, the senior was already focused on the future.
Because that’s what she’s always done.
“She was ready to take it to the end and do it all,” Gina said of Nichols’ missed opportunity to win a third team national title and all-around title. “And I’m sure she would have. But she knows how to handle this because she’s handled things like this her entire life.”
Nichols’ legacy will not be forgotten — not at OU, not in gymnastics, not in American sports.
She has overcome a host of obstacles during her life — from sexual abuse to missing the Olympics, to injuries, to her senior season being cut short. Through it all, she’s become more than “Athlete A” — the first victim to report the sexual abuse of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — for which she was awarded the 2019 NCAA Inspiration Award for her courage to come forward. She’s become more than arguably the greatest college gymnast ever, helping Oklahoma to two national titles and winning six individual titles, along with taking home the 2019 Honda Sport Award given to the best woman in college athletics.
She’s become an inspiration.
But she will also, in lesser-known ways, be remembered as a role model to little girls, an advocate for other survivors and more down-to-earth than many superstars.
“When you layer in one of the worst scandals in the history of Olympic sports and then you consider her success in college, all of it together makes her impact maybe one of the most impactful collegiate gymnasts in the history of the sport,” said Bart Conner, a former OU star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and ESPN gymnastics commentator. “She just seems like she’s so mentally strong and emotionally strong that she is bound and determined to use that as a stepping stone to further her greatness.”
She’s beauty and grace, historic and inspiring, fearless and captivating, resilient and courageous.
The kid nicknamed “Swaggy Maggie” is also, in the words of her father, John, “my idol.”
“She’s just amazing,” said John, a doctor. “I’d be out there breaking kneecaps, and she just takes it and says, ‘God’s got a different path for me to go.’ And she hits it full speed and doesn’t carry any of the baggage along with it.
“Every time you’re with her, every time you see her … she inspires you.”
Or as Nichols herself often says, “What did you do today that your future self will be proud of?”
‘Is Larry Nassar doing this to you?’
Nichols sat on a boat in the middle of the Mississippi River, just south of her hometown of Little Canada, Minnesota. It was Aug. 11, 2019, and she was home for a few days before her senior year started at OU.
It was a father-daughter catfishing trip, one of Nichols’ favorite activities outside of gymnastics. As Nichols, her father and their guide waited for a bite, she pulled out her phone. Her friend and former Team USA teammate, Simone Biles, was on the verge of winning the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Nichols wasn’t going to miss it.
“Our guide didn’t know much about gymnastics, so Maggie explained it to him as we sat there,” John said. “It was pretty funny. He was getting a lesson from one of the best.”
Biles took home gold, her sixth national championship. Nichols took home a 20-pound catfish.
It wasn’t long ago Nichols seemed on a path similar to Biles’. At the 2015 World Championships, the two were teammates, with Biles winning the all-around title and Nichols helping clinch the team final as the only gymnast to compete in all four events. They were expected to be on the Olympic team together in 2016 and the faces of USA Gymnastics for years to come.
This was no surprise to Nichols’ family. She was a star from the first time she walked into Roseville Gymnastics Center in Minnesota at 3 years old. Her older brother, Danny, had to be pulled out of the class for fighting with Nichols, a distraction to the little girl who even then showed intense focus in the gym.
“She excelled immediately. She was a natural. Natural strength. Natural flexibility. Natural everything,” said Gina, who was a gymnast in high school and is now a surgical nurse. “When she was 6 years old, she was already through levels four, five, six. She was ready to compete at level seven, which is basically unheard of at that age. She was on course to be an Olympic level athlete. A level 10 gymnast is likely getting a Division I scholarship. … Maggie was a level 10 at 9 years old.”
Nichols’ career took off from there. At 13, she joined Team USA and began training once a week at Karolyi Ranch, the Olympic training site near Huntsville, Texas. Nichols didn’t have a typical high school experience, committing instead to her dream of competing in the Olympics. And she was well on her way, with the 2016 games being her target.
In 2013, she placed fifth at the U.S. national championships. In 2014, she placed third.
But in June 2015, during a practice ahead of the world championships in October, Nichols’ personal coach, Sarah Jantzi, overheard a conversation between Nichols and another gymnast.
“Is Larry Nassar doing this to you?” Nichols asked another gymnast as she explained where the doctor’s hands went during treatment that no other’s did.
Jantzi pulled Nichols aside and asked what Nassar had done to her. After hearing Nichols describe Nassar’s treatments, Jantzi immediately contacted Gina and reported it to USA Gymnastics.
“She was just a little girl,” Gina said. “We expected our country, Team USA, to protect her when she flew down there once a month. I just never thought that would happen in a million years. It was inexcusable negligence. … She was the first person who verbally told someone, ‘I am being molested.’ And she knew it. She had a lot of injuries throughout her career, and there was never one doctor who ever molested her, examined her the way Larry Nassar did.”
Nassar’s abuse subsequently became well-documented, with more than 300 girls and women coming forward, detailing 15 years of victims of the former USA Gymnastics doctor, who has since been sentenced to life in prison. Nichols, the first athlete to report him, has been labeled “Athlete A” — a title that will never leave her. A Netflix documentary with that title is set to premiere in April, following Nichols’ story.
But Nichols has never let that title define her, either.
After reporting the abuse, Nichols kept training during the investigation. Much like her 3-year-old self, she was relentlessly focused in her pursuit of her Olympic dream.
In July, she finished third in the all-around at the U.S. Classic. In August, she finished second in the all-around at the national championships. And in October, she helped lead Team USA to gold at the world championships. All those years, from her first gymnastics practice at 3, to joining Team USA at 13, to helping her team to first place at worlds, Nichols was primed to be on the Olympic team that summer in Rio de Janeiro.
But in April 2016, Nichols tore the meniscus in her right knee during practice. She needed surgery just three months before the Olympic trials.
Nichols remembers practically living in the gym those three months. She trained tirelessly to stay in shape in a last-ditch effort to return, hoping she could still be one of the five gymnasts or three alternates selected for the team. She wasn’t at her best, she admits, but Nichols was still her elegant self as she executed all four events beautifully and finished sixth in the all-around, all on a still-healing knee.
It wasn’t enough. Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian would represent Team USA. MyKayla Skinner, Ashton Locklear and now-OU freshman Ragan Smith were the alternates.
“I think she should have been placed on that Olympic team,” Conner said. “There were a lot of us that just felt like she got a raw deal. … We felt like she got kicked to the side of the road, and it was unfair.”
Nichols’ injury is the excuse most point to for why she didn’t make the team. Gina believes it was much bigger than that.
“They never wanted Maggie to be a part of the Olympics because they didn’t want someone at the Olympics who is telling people she is being molested by the Olympic staff,” Gina said. “We were completely abused by USA Gymnastics. They tried to keep her and everybody quiet because they couldn’t let that get out, that one of their top athletes was being molested by their doctor before going to the 2016 Olympics. It was all a part of a cover-up.
“It was terrible for us. … She and our family were treated horribly because she reported abuse, and they didn’t like that.”
Three days after missing the Olympics, Nichols retired from elite gymnastics.
It was time for a new journey.
‘It almost freed her.’
Nichols moved into OU’s Headington Hall while her former teammates competed in Rio.
She was 817 miles from home, a 13-hour flight from her dreams and at a point few college freshmen could fathom.
“I guess I’ve always loved gymnastics, but there were so many challenges that I’ve had to go through during and after my Olympic trials. I think that was just a low point for me,” Nichols said. “Coming in here, I just really learned to love the sport of gymnastics again. I kind of had to fall back in love with the sport. … Coming here just really opened my eyes again.”
Nichols soon felt at home in Norman. It helped that she’d wanted to be at OU since she was 10.
Nichols had first visited in summer 2008 with two teammates to attend a Sooners gymnastics camp. That’s where she met K.J. Kindler, then in her third year as head coach.
“She was fearless,” Kindler recalled of a 10-year-old Nichols. “(She) would do anything you asked, would go for and try anything that was put in front of her … very responsive, very coachable, and very excited and passionate about the sport.”
Afterward, Nichols told her parents OU was where she would go to college. Five years later, Nichols committed to Kindler, who said “she felt like (Nichols) was at home and comfortable, and I think she wanted a place that felt safe to her.”
When Nichols arrived, 38 days after missing the Olympics and 15 months after reporting Nassar, she had to re-learn how to trust those around her. Kindler helped Nichols navigate an uncharted situation, giving her support but also the space to do it her own way.
“I stayed very neutral about it because I felt like — listen, I’ve never been through anything like that. I can’t tell her how to navigate her healing,” Kindler said. “It was important she worked through it herself. She’s an adult now, she’s on her own, she’s independent, she’s by herself here, she’s had huge family involvement in her entire life. Now it’s like you’re on your own, and I think it’s really important to make some of those decisions yourself and find your way yourself, and not always be pulled or pushed in a certain direction.
“I felt like that was the best thing I could do, and as time went on, as they say, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ You could see her kind of working through it, coming out a little bit more every single meet, kind of feeling a little bit better about what had happened. She still doesn’t feel good about it, but I think she’s come to terms with how it all transpired.”
Soon, Nichols was thriving.
In the gym, she recorded her first gym slam — scoring a 10 on all four events in one season — and recorded a season-long all-around score of 39.925, marking the highest of her career and a program record. She was a first-team All-American on vault, bars and floor, scored seven perfect 10s and led OU to its second consecutive national title.
Outside the gym, Nichols grew close with teammate Bre Showers, who she had met on their official visit at the OU-Iowa State football game. They became inseparable.
“At first, I was super scared of her because she had so much fame and notoriety with her name. She was intimidating. But she was so sweet and really shy. I was kind of surprised by that. I figured being an international star, she would be really boisterous and have a really big personality. But she was quiet,” Showers said. “Freshman year we did everything together, aside from living together. We were so close that we didn’t want to leave each other at the end of the night, so we brought her mattress into my dorm living room.”
That freshman year allowed Nichols to regain her confidence and find her voice amid all the distractions in her life.
It all led her to Jan. 9, 2018, six days before the first meet of her sophomore year, when Nichols released an 898-word statement detailing Nassar’s abuse and publicly identifying herself as “Athlete A.” Kindler helped Nichols write the statement, calling the two weeks spent trying to find the right words to describe the pain Nichols had been through one of the hardest things she’s done in 28 years of coaching.
“I would like to let everyone know that I am doing OK,” Nichols wrote. “My strong faith has helped me endure. It is a work in progress. I will strive to ensure the safety of young athletes who have big dreams just like mine and I will encourage them to stand up and speak if something doesn’t seem right.”
Afterward, hundreds of gymnasts came forward with their stories of Nassar’s abuse. She had, at age 20, given a voice to the voiceless.
“I chose to come forward just for myself. It was needed for me,” Nichols said. “But I knew coming forward, it would help so many others. Even if I could help just one person, I knew that was the right decision to come forward.”
In the 26 months that have followed, Nichols has, in a way, become a new person, say those who know her well. She has become more than a great gymnast. She has become more than “Athlete A.” She has become, courageously, her fuller self.
“It almost freed her,” Conner said. “She’s addressed it. She’s moving on. And she’s rising above it. To me, that’s a very powerful place to be. She is speaking to justice, but she will never be a victim, and to me, that is a very powerful position. That’s what, I think, people connect with…
“You go, girl. You had some trauma in your life, you got stepped on, you got kicked to the side and yet you are thriving.”
‘It’s hard to hold a candle to her.’
As her college career has progressed, Nichols often finds herself spending her free time at the Walmart Neighborhood Market on Classen Boulevard.
She, Showers and teammate Olivia Trautman have an odd fascination with the always busy grocery store just down the street from their apartment. It’s a place to get away and be themselves as normal college students.
“We talk and we just go through every single aisle to, I don’t know, spend time together?” Nichols said with a laugh. “We’re weird, I guess.”
Finding the joy in everyday life, even wandering the local grocery store, has helped Nichols block out the noise and put the past behind her.
Nichols’ decision to speak her truth springboarded the rest of her historic career, helping Oklahoma win another national title in 2019 and what would’ve probably been a third this April if the season had not been curtailed by coronavirus. She was the Sooners’ anchor all four years.
What makes Nichols so great?
It’s a combination of the coaching she receives, the difficulty in her routines and the elegance with which she performs.
“Part of it is just a fabulous coaching staff at OU. They can customize a program that helps Maggie be at her best. They have great confidence in her,” Conner said. “She’s your Michael Jordan at the end of the game when you’re down by a basket. If you need a .995 on beam, there’s nobody else to call. She’s your gymnast. She’s of that caliber. She’s not just like a technician, she’s also mentally so darn strong.”
Nichols captivates crowds like few others. She dials in before performing, often separating herself from her team as if she’s in her own world.
Her athleticism erupts on vault. Her strength ripples on bars. Her poise intensifies on beam. And her confident personality radiates on floor.
“She was gifted with God-given talents. You obviously see that if you watch her in person,” Showers said. “You hear about it, but it’s not until you see her in person when you realize it’s magnetizing. You can’t keep your eyes off her.”
In her four years at Oklahoma, she scored 22 perfect 10s (fourth all-time), is a six-time individual national champion and became just the sixth gymnast in NCAA history to win consecutive all-around national titles (2018, 2019). In her shortened senior season, Nichols scored five perfect 10s and was on pace to win her third-straight all-around title, leading the country with an average score of 39.796.
How much greater she would have been in the final meets of her career, we’ll never know.
“She stands among the best in the sport ever,” Kindler said. “For those people I would name, Jenny Hansen from the University of Kentucky … Courtney Kupets from the University of Georgia, Maggie Nichols from the University of Oklahoma. There’s not many that stand on top of the podium the way Maggie does. She’s definitely one of the best that our sport has ever seen.”
Nichols isn’t just OU’s best gymnast — she’s one of the best athletes to ever don the crimson and cream.
Her popularity is on par with college softball icons Lauren Chamberlain and Keilani Ricketts, women’s basketball legends Courtney and Ashley Paris, NBA stars Trae Young and Buddy Hield, and Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
“We’ve had some really great athletes come through our doors and people who were very captivating, there’s no doubt about it,” Kindler said. “But Maggie, it’s hard to hold a candle to her, especially on the female side. I don’t know that there’s been many female athletes that have gone through Oklahoma athletics that have the kind of effect that she’s had on people, period. People on campus, people everywhere all over the world. She’s a world champion, she’s an NCAA champion, 16 times over, individual and team, and has had this other impact on the side.
“It’s pretty incredible.”
But while Nichols’ accomplishments in the gym will live on in Sooner and gymnastics lore, it’s her impact as a person by using her voice as an athlete that will etch her name in history.
“I’ve seen a lot of great college gymnasts over the years, and Maggie will surely go down as one of the great collegiate gymnasts of all time,” Conner said. “I think the one thing that allows her success is more than just the stats. I do believe it’s the grace, the elegance and the empowerment that she exudes, considering what she’s been through. That puts her in a whole other league. In a way, it almost transcends her sports accomplishments.”
‘She’s way more than a survivor.’
Sitting directly in front of Gina that Saturday in late February was Sherline Romph.
The resident of Jefferson City, Missouri, had driven six and a half hours and 440 miles to sit in a section otherwise reserved for athlete’s families. She made the trip to honor her daughter, Margaret, who had a special connection with Nichols.
Margaret was in a car accident that left her with traumatic brain injuries and paralyzed at age 5. From a distance, Margaret saw Nichols overcome her own setbacks, inspiring her to do the same. She finally got to meet her in 2019 before the Sooners’ meet against then-No. 2 Florida.
Afterward, Nichols gave Margaret her phone number. Romph said Nichols texted her every week and the two forged a strong bond.
“For her, it was a dream come true,” Romph said. “For me, as her mother, we were so touched. Maggie knew how much my daughter meant to her. She had only 90 days left on earth after that. … It was the best thing that ever happened to her. It was a brightness in her life when all these other things were happening to her.”
Before Margaret died last May, Romph promised her she’d still attend as many OU meets as she could.
“I go to honor her and because I know she loved Maggie Nichols,” Romph said. “I am forever grateful for her kindness to my daughter.”
Romph’s story is the quintessential Nichols story.
“The way Maggie is handling it, with such grace and such power, that to me is a lesson,” Conner said. “If you’ve gotten a raw deal somewhere, figure out a way to turn it into a positive for you and thrive and rise above it. She’s doing that as an athlete. She’s doing that as an advocate. But without a sense of anger and bitterness. She’s just using all of that to thrive, and that to me is very inspiring.”
Nichols tries to impact those around her not only in person, but through social media — where she has nearly 250,000 combined followers on Twitter and Instagram. She does so through positive messages and quotes, saying things like, “If you’re reading this right now, I hope something amazing happens to you today.”
“For me, when someone says, ‘I hope you have a good day,’ or says something kind, it just kind of makes my whole day. It kind of changes my whole mood,” Nichols said. “I hope by tweeting (positive messages) will change their whole mood around because you never know what someone is going through. Having them read that or hear that can change someone’s whole day and can change my whole mood, too, if I help someone else out … so I hope I impact people just a little bit.”
Gina doesn’t know where Nichols gets her courage and resilience. She says Nichols has stayed focused and driven on her own. She has found her voice from within, not because someone told her to or because she wanted to.
Rather, her mother says, it’s perhaps because she had to.
“It’s hard to explain. Some of the worst things have happened to her that aren’t fair. For some reason she looks at it and says, ‘I’m going to make this better,’ and never gives up,” Gina said. “She has never complained about any of it … all she has done is move forward. It’s more than I can understand because I’m not that strong. I complain. Sometimes I find it hard to move forward. Somehow she uses the negatives and turns them into positives.
“She just keeps moving forward. That’s just who she is, and that’s something she’s learned on her own.”
Nichols will graduate in December with her bachelor’s in communications and a minor in business. She’ll stick around for one more gymnastics season as a student coach, while pursuing a master’s in broadcast journalism in hopes of working for ESPN one day.
While she’ll still be on campus and in the gym, Nichols the athlete will be missed. But Nichols the person will be felt forever.
Because she’s more than “Athlete A.” More than the gymnast who tore her meniscus on the eve of the Olympic trials. More than the greatest college gymnast who will never finish her senior season.
“Her ability to bounce back in all her different situations that she’s had to handle,” Kindler said, “she’s way more than a survivor.”
And her story is still being written.
“Well,” her father told her Thursday when she called with the news of a career cut short, “you got another couple chapters for your book.”
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