Maggie Nichols
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‘I still love the sport’ – Maggie Nichols pushes on after Nassar

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NORMAN, Okla. — For all the work Maggie Nichols has put into becoming a world-class gymnast, some of her most important moments in the sport these days are coming far from the mat.

Like sitting at a long table at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, welcoming a steady stream of children and their equally star-struck parents seeking autographs. As a meet continued just a few feet away, she signed away, marker gripped in her left hand. Smiling and engaging with each child, she held out hope that, in those brief moments, she could convey her deep love of a sport that has brought her both great triumph and great pain.

Nichols is a superstar athlete for gymnastics power Oklahoma with four NCAA titles in hand, including the all-around title last year. To the tens of thousands of fans who follow her on social media, she is a consistently positive, ebullient personality with a touch of sass. Mags Got Swag , after all.

Nichols is also Athlete A, the first person to tell USA Gymnastics that sports doctor Larry Nassar was sexually abusing her. The scandal that followed has rocked the sport and the U.S. Olympic movement to its core, with hundreds of girls and women somehow trying to move on with their lives as survivors – including Nichols, a Minnesota native who is a junior for the Sooners.

She knows the sport is reeling.

It is also important to her that the sport survives.

It is why it means so much to her to leave a positive impression in those brief moments with children, especially the girls. And why she feels it’s important to somehow disconnect the scandal from the sport itself.

“For me, gymnastics is such a beautiful sport, and it brings so much joy and it’s taught me so many amazing things and has given me so many amazing opportunities,” Nichols said. “So they are definitely two separate things for me.”

Nichols wants to let it be known that though the culture of sport at its highest levels hurt her, gymnastics also has helped her heal.

“I feel like gymnastics and being able to practice and compete has been a little bit of a – gets me away from all of the bad stuff that’s happened,” she said. “I still love the sport of gymnastics.”

Nichols is one of several high-profile Nassar survivors determined to help propel the sport forward through advocacy, education and compassion. Good friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles won her fifth national title last summer wearing a teal leotard, the color designated for survivors of sexual abuse. Six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman started the “Flip the Switch” program designed to teach adults how to protect young athletes from predators. While all have expressed deep concern with how USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar’s behavior to run unchecked for years, they, like Nichols, have taken great pains to make sure people don’t confuse missteps by the organization with the sport itself.

Gina Nichols, herself struggling to deal with the fallout, has been empowered by the way her daughter has handled it all.

“No matter what, she’s never said – and a lot of rotten things have happened to her – like, woe is me or I feel sorry for myself. She’s never once, ever since I had her, ever felt sorry for herself for anything,” Gina Nichols said. “She always stays that way, no matter what happens to her.”

Pastor Adam Starling of Victory Family Church in Norman said Nichols’ outlook in the face of challenges is rare, especially for someone so young. He asked Nichols to tell her story at services last October, and she obliged.

“She has strength, wisdom and courage well beyond her years,” he said. “I don’t think she’s able to do this without God walking with her. To be able to go through something that’s unthinkable for anyone at such a young age and be drawn into the spotlight – I think, is a tremendous amount of pressure that very few people on the planet can relate to in any way. But I think she handled it with character, with courage, with dignity.”

Nichols wasn’t always sure that speaking out was a good idea. She actually planned to come forward a month before she did, but when the day came, she told Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler she wasn’t ready. She finally made it known in January 2018.

“There was a lot of things that were crossing my mind before I came forward,” Nichols said. “If it would hinder any chances with my gymnastics. Also competing in gymnastics – would it change anything like that. Also things like, would people treat me different, would people look at me the wrong way, stuff like that. After I came forward, I was awfully nervous about that kind of stuff. The feedback and the responses I got were so positive. I had so many people behind me and supporting me. It was the right decision for me. I made the right decision.”

Her support system, including her church, her teammates and her family, helped her move forward. Kindler said Nichols has come a long way.

“She’s really opened up and, I think, embraced her platform and her ability to affect people positively and make an impact on young people everywhere – not just those who are going through troubled times and things of that nature, but we all have things that we struggle with,” Kindler said.

Starling said he is especially impressed with how intentional Nichols is about taking a negative situation and becoming a light to others through it.

“I think people throw around the word hero pretty easily, but I think she probably epitomizes that word because of how she’s handled it, and also how she’s been an example to everybody else that’s conquered something similar,” he said.

Nichols may have more to conquer soon. Injury derailed her last Olympic bid, and she doesn’t know if she will try to make it in 2020.

“That would be amazing if I would be able to try out for another Olympics,” she said. “That would be so fun, but I’m kind of focusing on college gymnastics right now and kind of enjoying that part of my life right now.”

She has just one more year at Oklahoma, which is the top seed in this year’s NCAA Championship. So while the spotlight shines most brightly, she has a limited window to make the most of her platform.

“I just hope to be a role model and an inspiration to many other gymnasts and non-gymnasts as well – just to know that they can speak up and they can say what’s going on in their lives as well, and just to know that you can get through any hard time,” she said. “And they can look to me for positivity.”

Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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