Maggie Nichols
Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.”

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

AP
Leave a comment

Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?