The celebratory clap of her hands and the look of pure joy on her face say it all: Maggie Nichols is having a blast.
When Nichols lands her dismount or concludes her floor routine, it’s clear she is loving every second of competing for Oklahoma, and the 5-4 Minnesotan with an infectious smile is taking the collegiate gymnastics world by storm.
But her journey has not been one without its ups and downs. Once a favorite for an Olympic berth, Nichols tore the meniscus in her right knee just months before trials while training vault. Nichols battled back in time to accomplish one of her major goals of competing at 2016 Olympic Trials but was not selected to the five-member team or as an alternate.
Nichols could have chosen to be bitter – at her injury, at the timing, at the situation. But she didn’t. Not even close.
If not for a landing that was a bit off, her journey may have looked a little different than it does now. But ask Nichols, and she will say that that moment happened for a reason, that it was all part of God’s plan.
Through just six meets, the freshman is already rewriting the OU record books, and Nichols has embraced a positive outlook on life and is now relishing in all the new opportunities in front of her.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Nichols began gymnastics at 3 years old after her parents, John and Gina, noticed she had a lot of energy. So much in fact that she would climb out of her crib, climb down the stairs, climb over the fence, just climb all over the place, so they decided gymnastics was a safer place for her to release that energy.
That outlet has paid off as she has climbed through the gymnastics world, enjoying a decorated career. A native of Little Canada, Minn., Nichols trained at Twin City Twisters and earned a spot on the United States National Team.
In 2014, Nichols experienced a breakout Elite season, highlighted by a third-place finish in the all-around behind Simone Biles and Kyla Ross. But a setback came at the Pan American Games when Nichols landed one of her passes wrong and dislocated her left kneecap. Despite the injury, she finished the competition and helped the team win a gold medal. That injury led to surgery and six months away from the sport. Even then, Nichols’ signature positive outlook prevailed.
“I was at such a high point and I was doing well,” Nichols explained. “I was very disappointed, but I tried to turn the tables to a positive note, look at the positive side of it.”
Following her rehab, Nichols burst back onto the scene in 2015 and enjoyed arguably one of the best years of her career so far. She earned another top finish at P&G Championships, placing second to just Biles, an accomplishment she says was a “huge honor.”
“It was just a wow factor for me, like my hard work is paying off,” Nichols explains. “And coming back from that injury was just a wow for me.”
But the wows would not stop there as Nichols eventually earned a spot on the gold-medal-winning 2015 U.S. World Championships team. Nichols was the only American gymnast to compete on all four events in the team final as she proved a key part of that first-place finish. Later, she went on to claim an individual bronze medal on floor exercise.
After this standout performance, all arrows seemed to be pointing to an Olympic berth for Nichols. Marta Karolyi, then the national team coordinator, pulled Nichols aside after preliminary competition and told Nichols she would be doing the all-around in team finals, and Nichols admits she thought her chances at going to Rio seemed high.
“I kind of thought to myself, ‘Wow, she must really trust me,’ so I thought that since she did trust me that it would help me in the future with hopefully making that team,” Nichols shares.
But those chances would take a drastic hit just a few months later when she tore the meniscus in her right knee while training for the Pacific Rim Championships in early April. While performing her Amanar vault, Nichols says she landed “a little bit weird.” She felt a pop in her knee but didn’t experience a sharp pain. Since she wasn’t sure if something was wrong, she walked back to the end of the vault runway to go again, but her coach stopped her.
“I feel like I knew something was wrong but at the same time I didn’t want to tell myself there was something wrong so I wanted to convince myself that I could go again and show that I could do the vault,” Nichols explains. “I thought that if something was wrong it would reduce my chances of making that team, I mean which is true, but I didn’t want to tell myself that.”
While Nichols was sad about the injury, there was a part of her that was happy that it was not something more serious that would have kept her out for the entire season. Instead, she knew she would have enough time to come back strong and compete at Olympic Trials.
Nichols had surgery to repair the meniscus and eventually walked out of surgery, which was a good sign that she felt strong enough to do so. She started coming back at six weeks, a couple of weeks earlier than expected.
However, due to a bone bruise, Nichols had to tape a large section of her leg in order to feel safe when she did gymnastics. That felt like a bit of a setback since with the tape, she was not able to do her gymnastics the way she wanted. But still she kept going.
Nichols made her return at P&G Championships, competing on uneven bars and balance beam. She did not have her best showing at the meet and admits the results were discouraging and made her question if her plans to make it to trials would work out. Despite her doubts and struggles, Nichols went back in the gym and kept working to regain her strength on all the events.
By the time Olympic Trials arrived in July, Nichols says she was not only physically better but mentally as well. All her hard work had paid off as she accomplished one of the goals she set at such a young age: competing at trials.
"It was pretty hard mentally but life had setbacks and obstacles that you have to overcome and I think it makes you a stronger person. You have to go through those hard times to get stronger and to grow as a person and as an athlete and it was meant to be and it happened for a reason.”
— Maggie Nichols
This will to fight back from a serious injury demonstrates a lot about Nichols and her character, says Rhonda Faehn, USA Gymnastics’ senior vice president of the women’s program.
“It speaks volumes about who she is as a person, her incredible determination,” Fahen states. “It was a serious injury that happened, and I know that it was a very difficult and challenging time, and recovering from that and the rehabilitation and getting back out there in such a short amount of time is incredibly difficult. Her strength and her character really showed through in that her spirit, the fighting spirit was there, and her performance factor was beautiful.”
Despite a sixth-place finish in the all-around, Nichols was not selected to the Olympic team or as an alternate. While she admits she was “very confused and sad” because she felt she did well and proved she could hit her routines for at least an alternate spot, she says she guesses “it wasn’t meant to be.”
“It was pretty hard mentally but life has setbacks and obstacles that you have to overcome and I think it makes you a stronger person,” Nichols explains. “You have to go through those hard times to get stronger and to grow as a person and as an athlete and it was meant to be and it happened for a reason.”
Following the meet, she spent time with her parents and others close to her who came to watch her compete, and they all had the same message for Nichols.
“They just said how incredibly proud they were of me and that they were just shocked at how well I performed after just such a short amount of preparation ... so that’s all that mattered to me and I just wanted to make everyone proud,” Nichols shares.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her, not only of her achievements but because of who she is because she has been mentally strong through this and stayed positive,” says Nichols’ mom, Gina. “Even when there’ve been negatives, she’s stayed positive. That, to me, is more important than even what she’s achieved, is just how she’s stayed a positive person and she’s a kind girl and a humble girl, and that makes me more proud than even her achievements as a gymnast.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
After a week off following trials, Nichols returned to the gym and started working wide bars and other college skills. She knew it was time to retire from Elite gymnastics and open the next chapter in her life at Oklahoma.
That chapter has unfolded quite impressively thus far. Nichols has lived up to her nickname of “Swaggie Maggie,” lighting up the world of collegiate gymnastics and currently holding the No. 1 ranking in the all-around for a sixth straight week. Already she has three 10.0s to her name, one each on vault, beam and floor, to become the first Sooner in program history to post a perfect score on three different events.
Nichols also holds the school’s all-around record with a 39.875, set in just her third meet. Additionally, Nichols has earned seven weekly awards from the Big 12 Conference, matching the record for most honors in a single season.
Even with all the competitive success, what stands out most to those who know Nichols is her attitude and work ethic. According to head coach K.J. Kindler, Nichols is serious in the gym, focused on the task at hand each day and pushing for the best effort and results from herself. In addition to the experience and decorated background she brings to the Sooners, Nichols also offers so much more.
“She also brings just a lot of love,” Kindler shares. “She’s just got a really big heart and you can see that she has tons of passion. Even through everything that she’s been through, she’s still got that big heart for gymnastics, still super passionate about it. A lot of people might be tainted by their experience if it didn’t go quite the way they wanted, but I feel like she just found a new purpose and moved forward. What she’s done is remarkable.”
“Maggie always come into the gym with a positive attitude,” echoes junior Natalie Brown. “She really leaves everything that's happening non-gymnastics related outside of the gym. You can tell she is always zoned in. She is great teammate and cheers us all on. Maggie brings power, grace and passion to the OU program. She was always an amazing performer while she competed internationally and has definitely brought that and more with her to Norman. She fits in well here and has that star mentality while remaining humble.”
So far, Nichols is taking in and enjoying every second in the Crimson and Cream, having a blast competing for the Sooners and building relationships with her teammates.
"A lot of people might be tainted by their experience if it didn’t go quite the way they wanted, but I feel like she just found a new purpose and moved forward. What she’s done is remarkable."
- K.J. Kindler
“With the team we just create such an amazing bond together when we are out there competing and every weekend is just such an adrenaline rush," Nichols says. "It’s like your hard work is paying off and it’s paying off and it’s paying off. It's just a great feeling and I love it."
Nichols’ love of the sport is obvious while she is competing, and she already has a signature post-routine celebration that sticks out to Kindler.
“In my mind, the vision I have of her is when she lands her dismount or the end of her routine and she claps. That’s a very genuine reaction,” Kindler shares. “She’s clapping, she’s excited, she’s showing the world ‘I love to do this. I just did an awesome job. Bring it on, give me more.’ So in my mind I just see her clapping her hands and having this really brilliant look on her face. It’s just very uplifting, and you can see that it’s very genuine and she is very excited to do gymnastics.”
If Nichols had been selected to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, she knows her life could look quite different now. In fact, she may have selected to defer a year to partake in some of the post-Olympic tours and might not have arrived in Norman yet. But she does not get caught up in the “ifs” but rather is grateful for the beauty of her reality.
“I’ve definitely thought of that many times: If I wouldn’t have torn my knee and would’ve made that Olympic team, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Nichols states. "I think that God had that happen for a reason so that I would be here and experiencing these amazing opportunities. I think this is probably one of the best times of my life that I’m experiencing right now and it’s just amazing.”
There is no doubt that Nichols is taking full advantage of these opportunities in front of her at Oklahoma, all while not forgetting to stop, clap and appreciate the moments along the way.