ST. LOUIS (AP) — Maggie Nichols gets the question pretty frequently, usually from one of her high school classmates and usually with a very specific caveat.
“They say, ‘Who do you think is going to be on the Olympic team?'” the 18-year-old gymnast said with a laugh. “Then it’s like, ‘Well, who besides you?'”
Out of sheer politeness, Nichols does not correct them, though she’s well aware that her place on the five-woman team that will head to Rio de Janeiro in August as heavy favorites to load up on copious amounts of medals is hardly a given. Besides, who doesn’t want to be told by someone – anyone really – that they’re good enough to be an Olympian? If Nichols is being honest, she’s not above doing the math in her head, too.
“Sometimes it’s good to think about that stuff just to prepare yourself,” Nichols said.
One way or the other.
Nichols appeared to be a near lock after helping the U.S. cruise to a world championship last October. She was the only American to compete in all four events during the team final – a big vote of confidence from national team coordinator Martha Karolyi – and added a bronze medal on floor exercise.
Then she felt a twinge in her knee while landing a vault during practice in early April. An MRI revealed a torn meniscus, one easily repaired with minor surgery. But it forced her to skip the Pacific Rims and the Secret Classic, two important preliminary meets ahead of this weekend’s U.S. championships and the U.S. Olympic Trials next month in San Jose.
Nichols could only cheer as her friends – the same friends she’s trying to beat out for an Olympic berth – did their best to catch Karolyi’s attention.
“It’s weird watching them compete,” Nichols said. “But it was nice because I knew where I needed to get that extra gear up.”
Nichols had a shoulder to lean on during the process. Madison Kocian, who like Nichols won a pair of medals at worlds last fall, began March on crutches after two bones in her left ankle smacked together during a national team camp. The ensuing bone bruise left the 19-year-old frustrated and bummed out.
“It hit me both mentally and physically,” Kocian said. “But on the mental side it was like, ‘Gosh I was pretty much at my top heading into this year. It’s such an important year.”
The most important, at least for Kocian and Nichols, both of whom are planning on stepping away from elite gymnastics to focus on college careers when the current Olympic cycle is over. They took turns trying to cheer each other up during their rehabs, working on what they could (mostly upper body strength and conditioning) while trying to show Karolyi during the team camps this spring they had no intention of letting the setbacks slow them down.
“I just wanted to show up and be in front of her,” Kocian said. “It’s super important.”
Good idea considering the wealth of options at Karolyi’s fingertips. Karolyi is stepping down from her post after Rio and has no plans on doing it with anything less than one last gold. She called the current group of top Americans as deep as she’s seen, starting with three-time reigning world champion Simone Biles and defending Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Barring injury, the two stars figure to be on the plane to Brazil. Three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman also is in good position, though Raisman joked the U.S. is so talented Karolyi could pick five names out of a hat and be fine.
And while Karolyi is quick to praise Nichols and Kocian for their spectacular contributions at worlds, those heady two weeks in Scotland are now so 2015.
“As we go closer to the major competition for what we (are) selecting, it’s more important what you do (now) than what you did a half a year ago,” Karolyi said. “That makes a difference.”
Kocian returned at the Secret Classic in Hartford earlier this month, posting the second-highest score on bars. She will take on a heavier workload this weekend but her best bet at going to Rio probably depends on her ability to become one of Karolyi’s top three choices on Kocian’s signature event.
The two teenagers are trying not to put too much pressure on themselves. You don’t spend this much time in the national program without having a little toughness, something they had a chance to show during a commercial for Under Armour, when the cameras played a montage of the draining daily grind of competing for a dynasty.
They were overwhelmed by the response, though the understated Kocian gave credit to the cameras and the lighting for showcasing arms that look like they were transplanted off an MMA fighter.
“I guess it looked pretty cool,” Kocian said.
Not as cool, though, as standing atop a podium in Rio.