U.S.’ ‘most improved’ gymnast hopes to best Gabby Douglas at American Cup

Maggie Nichols
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NEWARK, N.J. — Maggie Nichols will walk into the Prudential Center for the AT&T American Cup on Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1 p.m. ET) more than ready to compete against the Olympic all-around champion, her friend and usual teammate Gabby Douglas.

Nichols will have two very important things on her side: a mature new floor routine and the approval of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

In practice Thursday, Nichols did a run-through of her brand-new floor exercise, which has more of the Latin-inspired choreography that became her signature in 2015.

Her previous routine, which earned bronze at the 2015 World Championships, used a piece of paso doble music called “España Cañí.”

Her new music for 2016 — the music Nichols hopes to hear in Rio in August — is similar, “a tango-ish sort of thing,” she said.

“It’s still very new,” Nichols said Thursday, “so it won’t be as good as I probably can dance. I’ll try my best.”

The sophisticated routine reflects the grown-up athlete Nichols has become after her breakout 2015.

In August, she led after the first three of eight rotations at the P&G Championships, eventually finishing second behind Simone Biles and ahead of 2012 Olympians Douglas, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross.

Two months later, she earned team gold and floor bronze in her World Championships debut in Glasgow, Scotland.

She also added high school graduate to her list of accomplishments, finishing classes at Roseville Area High in Minnesota in December.

She’s now focused entirely on gymnastics. Nichols plans to stay amateur and compete collegiately at Oklahoma in January 2017, after the expected post-Olympic whirlwind dies down.

While her résumé speaks for itself, it was the endorsement of Karolyi that marked her as a Rio contender.

“Maggie Nichols, the biggest improvement I can see in this quadrennium is her,” Karolyi said last August. “At the beginning, she was just average, new elite, two and a half, three years ago. And every year, very seriously, very committed, very dedicated, she worked her way, and I think at this moment she is showing definitely world-class gymnastics.”

Nichols feels she’s still improving.

“My skills are getting cleaner, and everything’s getting more powerful,” she said.

Karolyi’s feedback has been more about mentality, that she urged Nichols to “stay really focused and calm and do what I usually do.”

Not that Nichols or Karolyi are worried that she’ll falter under the pressure at the American Cup.

“Maggie never missed a routine last season in any competition,” Karolyi told USA Gymnastics. “She handles very well the pressure, and she is one of those girls who really likes to perform. Sometimes gymnasts get a little intimidated, but not her.”

Nichols isn’t thinking about the fact that she’ll be facing off with the reigning Olympic all-around champion on Saturday.

Though Douglas earned World Championships all-around silver behind Biles in October, Nichols posted an all-around score in the team final that would have won bronze in the individual final.

Does Nichols consider herself the favorite Saturday?

“I haven’t thought too much about it, but it’s my goal so that’d be really cool if it came out that way,” Nichols said.

A few months before the London Olympics, Douglas posted the highest score at the American Cup, but the win wasn’t official because she was competing as an exhibition athlete.

All four U.S. female all-around Olympic champions — Douglas, Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton — won the American Cup the same year as their Olympic title.

Biles, the three-time U.S. and World all-around champion and Rio Olympic favorite, was not entered in the American Cup.

USA Gymnastics could enter a maximum of two gymnasts and wanted to get an early look at Douglas and Nichols.

Biles is slated to make her 2016 debut at the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks.

MORE: Mary Lou Retton reflects on American Cup win 

Correction: Due to an editing error, Maggie Nichols was incorrectly credited with posting a higher World Championships all-around score than Gabby Douglas in an earlier version of this post.