Oklahoma's Maggie Nichols still the 'Jordan of college gymnastics' despite abrupt end to career

Oklahoma senior Maggie Nichols had plans to cement her spot as one of the greatest NCAA gymnasts of all time before the coronavirus pandemic cut the 2020 season short. Joshua R. Gateley for ESPN

After 19 years in the sport that took her around the world and made her a household name, Maggie Nichols' gymnastics career ended in a team meeting room on a Thursday afternoon in March.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Nichols, a senior at Oklahoma, had plans to cement her spot as one of the greatest NCAA gymnasts of all time. She was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the all-around and on vault. She was ready to help lead the Sooners to a second-straight NCAA championship and prepared to win her third straight all-around national title.

She was ready to walk away from the sport on her own terms, leaving a legacy that wouldn't -- couldn't -- soon be forgotten.

Then came the meeting. She knew what was coming. It was March 12, and sporting events across the country already had been affected. The last regular-season meet of the year, a sold-out event at the University of Minnesota, just miles from where she grew up, had been called off. The realities of the coronavirus pandemic were becoming clearer, fueling speculation that most NCAA winter sports championships would be held without fans, or be postponed or canceled.

Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler delivered the news: The season was over.

Nichols, 22, and fellow Oklahoma seniors Jade Degouveia and Brehanna Showers would never wear the Sooners' leotards again. Nichols still struggles to put into words how devastating the realization was.

"I think we had so much left to show everyone, and we were still climbing up that mountain," Nichols said. "We were almost on the top, so [it] was very sad because everyone wants that opportunity to go to Big 12, and then regionals, then nationals, and to ultimately win that national championship ring."

It wasn't the first time gymnastics had broken Nichols' heart.

Before she arrived at Oklahoma in the summer of 2016, Nichols had been a member of the United States national team, which she helped lead to gold in the 2015 world championships. She was considered a favorite to make the 2016 Olympics roster. But few what emotional weight Nichols was carrying.

Ahead of the 2015 worlds, Nichols' longtime elite coach, Sarah Jantzi, overheard Nichols talking to teammate Aly Raisman at training camp about their experiences with former U.S. women's national team doctor Larry Nassar. Jantzi encouraged Nichols to speak up, and together they notified USA Gymnastics that Nichols was sexually assaulted by Nassar multiple times during her time with the national team. Nichols became known as "Athlete A" in documentation about the allegations, the first USAG athlete to come forward against Nassar.

She did not receive a hero's reception for courage -- not then, anyway. USA Gymnastics was slow, if not hesitant, to investigate her claims. And despite coming back from a torn meniscus injury in time for the leadup to the Olympics, Nichols was left off the 2016 Rio roster. (Her mother, Gina Nichols, said she believes USA Gymnastics ultimately punished Nichols for coming forward.)

With an injured body and traumatized soul, there was seemingly nothing left for Nichols at that level. She retired from elite gymnastics three days after being left off the Olympic team and headed to Norman. Over the next four years, Nichols rediscovered her love for the sport and also became one of the all-time best at the collegiate level. She found her voice as a survivor and a role model.

The 2020 NCAA championships were supposed to be her victory lap, but she lost that chance, too.

Nichols doesn't want her story to be a sad one. Instead, she hopes it's a story of redemption and resilience.

"I have no idea where she gets it from, certainly not me, but Maggie doesn't have a negative bone in her body," Gina said. "No matter what has happened to her, she continues to push forward, and she never complains. She has this incredible gift where she can turn negatives into positives.

"She says, 'OK, this is what happened to me,' and then just gets on with it. I am super proud of all of her accomplishments, but I'm most proud of the person she is and how she's dealt with everything that's happened in her life. She is amazing, but really she's just Maggie."

Olympic hopes and heartbreak

By the time she was 9 years old, Nichols dreamed of competing in the Olympics. It was all she cared about.

"My wish in the wishing bowl was always that," she said. "I remember so vividly wanting it when I would throw the penny."

Nichols grew up outside of Minneapolis in the small town of Little Canada with her parents John, a doctor, and Gina, a nurse. She was the youngest of four siblings and the only girl. Gina enrolled Maggie and her brother Danny in a gym class when Maggie was 3. She showed promise on the first day, but Maggie and Danny couldn't stop fighting with one another. The teacher said one of them had to go.

Maggie got to stay and Danny moved on to other sports. (It was probably the right call -- Danny now stands at 6-foot-3.)

When Maggie was 10, she started competing as a level-10 gymnast for Twin City Twisters, a nearby gym with a track record of producing elite gymnasts. That same year, she attended a summer camp at Oklahoma with fellow Minnesota gymnast Brie Olson, who also later competed for the Sooners. Kindler, who has been the head coach since 2006 and runs the camp, was impressed.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, she has it,'" Kindler said. "But there's so much more that goes into [achieving success], including having the resources, access and a supportive family. She had all of those things, so I knew she could have a bright future."

At age 11, Nichols competed in her first national event at the 2009 Women's U.S. Junior Olympic National Championships and finished first on the uneven bars and seventh in the all-around competition. By 2013, she was a member of the national team and was competing for the United States in international events. Alongside Simone Biles, Kyla Ross and future Oklahoma teammate Brenna Dowell, she helped lead the team to a first-place finish at the City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy -- her first competition outside of the country.

While Biles began to dominate competitions and headlines, Nichols became a legitimate contender for the 2016 Olympic team. She finished third in the all-around event at the 2014 U.S. Classic and P&G Championships, as well as in three international competitions. The following year, the most crucial in an Olympic cycle, Nichols finished second in the all-around behind Biles at the national championships.

Just a few months after she became "Athlete A," she was left out of the all-around event at the 2015 worlds in Glasgow, but competed in all four events in the team final -- helping lift the American team to gold, as well as earning bronze with this floor routine.

In April of 2016, Nichols tore the meniscus in her right knee while practicing on vault. She underwent arthroscopic surgery. She was out for two months, but returned in time for the P&G Championships. She competed in just two events and secured a spot in the Olympic trials, where she finished sixth in the all-around and fourth on floor.

Despite high finishes over the previous two years, Nichols was not named to the five-member team or as one of the three alternates. Team coordinator Marta Karolyi pointed to her lack of a top-three score on any event for her omission.

"The selection is based on three up, three count," Karolyi said at the time. "If you look up her scores on every single event, her score is not factoring in. Not even one time in the three up, three count. That's harsh, but that's what it is."

Nearly four years after Nichols' Olympic snub, Gina Nichols remains convinced Maggie didn't make the team because her daughter came forward about Nassar.

"Maggie did the right thing and said something, she spoke up when no one else would and this is how they treated her," Gina said. "Instead of instantly getting law enforcement involved, [USA Gymnastics was] more concerned with their reputation, money and winning medals. We never thought about the ramifications, we just thought about needing to report this pedophile who was abusing Maggie and all these other young girls."

According to "Start by Believing," a book by ESPN investigative reporters Dan Murphy and John Barr, former USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny worked to contain and control the story of Nassar's abuse from the first time he learned of concerns. In June 2015, Penny and others at USAG had learned that several prominent national team gymnasts were uncomfortable with the way Nassar had touched them during treatment sessions. Rather than alerting authorities as was required by Indiana law, Penny first hired consultant and workplace harassment investigator Fran Sepler to investigate the complaints. Sepler interviewed gymnasts Nichols, Raisman and McKayla Maroney.

USA Gymnastics said in a statement in January 2018 that it was "entirely baseless" to suggest that it had attempted to silence athletes or keep the investigation secret, and that it never tried to hide Nassar's misconduct.

Maggie publicly came forward in January 2018, as did hundreds of others, with a statement detailing the abuse and her experience with USAG. Her mother read it aloud to a judge at Nassar's sentencing hearing.

"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," Maggie's statement read. "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 [Nassar] did not do this to 'Athlete A,' he did it to Maggie Nichols."

Nassar was sentenced to 40-to-175 years in prison on seven first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges, which he will begin serving following the completion of a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography possession. He is currently an inmate at United States Penitentiary Coleman in Florida.

When Nichols is pushed to recount what happened to her, she shuts down. She's grateful to be considered a role model for her gymnastics achievements and for speaking out against sexual abuse. She feels empowered by fellow survivors, but wants to leave it in the past.

"She has truly raised the bar for all collegiate gymnasts, and she has also paved the way for many survivors to speak up and out," said Biles, a fellow survivor, four-time Olympic gold medalist and one of Nichols' close friends. "Her legacy will be her pure-hearted spirit and that will never be forgotten [in this sport]."

Maggie says she refuses to allow that chapter in her life define her, but knows she helped make a difference by speaking up. She takes that responsibility seriously.

"I just wanted to speak out so I could impact other people and give other people that voice and let them know that they're not alone, which was something that initially helped me, too," she said. "But I just wanted to help other people and make sure that people are safe as well. I get direct messages pretty frequently from people who have been through similar experiences, and it's cool to know I've impacted other people's lives, especially with something so serious."

She also insists she has moved on from Olympic heartbreak.

"I don't really think about it too much," she said. "I gave it everything I had. I definitely don't have any regrets, but I think making it to trials is still such an incredible honor and I left it all out there."

'The Michael Jordan of college gymnastics'

Nichols retired from elite gymnastics with an Instagram post. Calling it the "hardest decision," she expressed gratitude for her experiences and thanked her family, coaches and the fans. Her post finished with a simple message: "I still hope I can continue to inspire people to reach [their] goals and dreams. I'm excited to continue my journey at the University of Oklahoma starting in August."

View this post on Instagram

Hi friends!! Today I am announcing my retirement from elite gymnastics. This has been the hardest decision I've made, but it's what is right for me. I have been so blessed to be able to represent the United States in multiple international competitions and the World championships and becoming a world champion. I've gone through so many injuries and hard times, and I've been through so many good times and I've learned so many incredible life lessons I wouldn't have been able to learn without my elite career. Words can't even describe the things I've been through. Looking back it's such an amazing experience, and I'm so thankful I was able to experience all of that. I can't thank my coaches and my parents enough for everything they have done for me, and sacrificed for me. Also thank you to all of you for all the love and support throughout my elite career, I wouldn't be where I am today without you all. I still hope I can continue to inspire people to reach there goals and dreams.✨ I'm excited to continue my journey at the University of Oklahoma starting in August. Go Sooners❤️ Xoxo, swags

A post shared by MAGGIE NICHOLS🦋🌼💕💎⚡️ (@callmeswags) on

While other former national team members such as Ross and Madison Kocian took their talents to powerhouse UCLA, Nichols was at peace at Oklahoma, away from the spotlight. She loved the university from the moment she set foot on campus during that summer camp she attended as a child. She loved the Midwest feel of campus and the charm of the flatlands and the friendly people. By the start of her freshman season in 2016, Maggie was ready to help put the program on the map.

"I very much expected Maggie to come to the NCAA level and dominate immediately," said 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 2015 NCAA all-around champion Samantha Peszek, now a commentator for Pac-12 Network and the SEC Network. "When you consider just how good she was in the elite world, and the fact that she didn't reach her ultimate goal, a lot of gymnasts who have that experience come into college with something to prove."

There was no question about Nichols' talent, but after her experience with USAG, she initially struggled with trusting her new team at Oklahoma. Coach Kindler realized that Nichols needed time and space, but all that ended after the first night of the 2017 NCAA championships her freshman year.

During that season, Nichols earned seven perfect 10 scores and became the ninth collegiate gymnast to achieve the "GymSlam," a perfect score on each of the four disciplines. Nichols also was the Big 12 champion in vault and uneven bars, and ranked No. 1 going into the all-around competition at the NCAA championships. When she stumbled off the beam, there was an audible gasp in the crowd and a look of frustration on her face when she remounted. She stuck her dismount just a few seconds later. Earning a 9.35 score, she finished 29th overall.

"I could sense that in her head she was thinking, 'Oh no, it's happening again,' like something that she had worked so hard for and didn't get, just like the Olympic spot," Kindler said. "She came to my room later, and we had this really great conversation and we talked about how much the next day, the team competition, really meant and how much more wearing a championship team ring would mean to her than any individual title. She still had a purpose, and a journey to finish the next night."

With the NCAA team title on the line, Nichols didn't just stick her beam routine, she scored a perfect 10.

Her strong showing on all four events led the Sooners to a national championship, the program's third overall and second straight. But, more importantly, Kindler believes earning the team title was the defining moment in how Nichols looked at a sport that had taken so much from her.

As a sophomore, Nichols won the individual all-around title, co-titles on bars and floor and second place on beam, but UCLA edged Oklahoma for the national title. She earned four first-team All-American honors, was named the Big 12 Gymnast of the Year and achieved the "GymSlam" again, notching eight perfect scores on the year.

She had a heel injury for much of the 2019 season and competed primarily on bars and beam, entering the NCAA championships having not competed in the all-around since the start of the season. She wasn't planning to compete, but because her team was depleted by injuries, she agreed to be in the lineup on all four events, and won. Nichols became the sixth NCAA gymnast to repeat as all-around champion, took home co-vault honors and was named a first-team All-American. The next day, she again helped the Sooners win the team again -- its third in four years -- and won the NCAA Inspiration Award.

Before Nichols' senior season was cut short, she had the chance to make more history. She earned five 10.0 scores (four on vault, one on bars) and led the nation in the all-around category. Nichols holds the Oklahoma record for perfect scores (22). Both she and UCLA's Ross (also with 22) had a chance to catch the all-time record of 28.

The undefeated Sooners were ranked No. 1 for the entire season and the overwhelming favorites to win the title. Nichols looked to become just the second NCAA gymnast to win three consecutive all-around titles (joining Kentucky's Jenny Hansen, 1993-95) and the third to win it three times (Georgia star-turned-coach Courtney Kupets won it her freshman, sophomore and senior seasons).

Despite the shortened season, Nichols earned first-team All-American honors in all four individual events and the all-around, and was one of three gymnasts (along with Ross and Florida's Trinity Thomas) to earn the recognition in all five categories. She was the only one to make first team on each, was again the Big 12 Gymnast of the Year and is a finalist for the Honda Award.

"Maggie Nichols is the Michael Jordan of college gymnastics," Biles said. "It's been amazing watching her growth and seeing her become the ultimate example of what it means to compete in NCAA gymnastics."

A storybook ending after all

The day after the Sooners competed together for the last time, Nichols invited everyone to her off-campus house for a final team dinner.

Stories were shared and tears were shed. It was as close to closure as Nichols will likely get, and she realized, maybe she did get that storybook finish after all. It wasn't standing atop the podium or celebrating with teammates as confetti streamed down at the NCAA championships, but it was still everything she could have wanted.

Senior Night, Oklahoma's last regular-season home meet -- what would end up being Nichols' final collegiate meet -- was a night she will never forget. She thought her performances on floor exercise, balance beam and uneven bars were close to perfect, and her vault was just that. She won every event and the all-around title, and was able to celebrate with her family and teammates.

"It is hard to think about moving on and knowing that I didn't get that last bar, or vault, or floor routine. But for me, after everything happened, I really did take a step back," she said. "I looked at my last meet and my last season in my whole career and I don't think I could have ended a better way. "

Before the NCAA last month ruled against winter-sport seniors being granted an extra year of eligibility, Nichols was unsure what she would do if given the opportunity. She had been mentally prepared for her career to end this spring and was concerned her body would not be able to handle the rigors of training and competition for 12 more months. But Nichols has felt certain about one thing -- she isn't ready to say goodbye to the school or the team, posting a passionate plea to the NCAA shortly after its announcement, asking it to reconsider its position.

Nichols had planned to spend another year on campus to obtain her master's in sports journalism and work as a volunteer coach with the team. She wants to learn all aspects of coaching from Kindler, whom she describes as "like a second mom to me." She also hopes to obtain a broadcasting internship.

"I look back on my career and I just smile because, even though I did go through the lowest of the lows, I also went through the highest of the highs," she said. "I experienced some things that people will never experience -- traveling internationally for competition and going to world championships, going to national championships, winning national championships, winning world championships.

"Honestly, I look back and it's a dream."