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2019 NCAA Inspiration Award: Maggie Nichols

Oklahoma gymnast hopes reporting abuse by USA Gymnastics doctor helps others feel empowered

Maggie Nichols made the difficult choice for the legion of young girls who approach her for photos or autographs whenever she appears in public. She did it for the slew of strangers out there who also were victims of abuse and feel ashamed, not empowered.

On Jan. 9, 2018, Nichols, then a sophomore gymnast at Oklahoma, released an 898-word statement informing the world that she, too, had been sexually assaulted by former USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar. She let the world know that, in 2015, she and her coach were the first to report his abuse to USA Gymnastics, that she was the one who had been identified only as “Athlete A” in the reports of Nassar’s actions, which he inflicted under the guise of medical treatment on more than 300 victims.

With her announcement, Nichols joined other prominent American gymnasts who had gone public regarding the pain Nassar had inflicted and the environment that had allowed it to continue unchecked. Because of their willingness to speak out, Nassar is now in prison, sentenced to 40 to 125 years, unable to harm any other girls.

“I want everyone to know that he did not do this to Athlete A, he did it to Maggie Nichols,” Nichols wrote in the statement. “I would like to let everyone know that I am doing OK. … I will strive to ensure the safety of young athletes who have big dreams just like mine and I will encourage them to stand up and speak if something doesn’t seem right.”

A torn meniscus, suffered just three months before the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials, derailed Nichols’ dreams of making the Olympic team, which went on to win gold in Rio de Janeiro that summer. Undeterred by that disappointment, Nichols enrolled at Oklahoma that fall and instantly became a star for the Sooners. She led Oklahoma to a team national championship during her freshman year, scoring team highs in all four disciplines at the NCAA championship final.  

Despite the success, Nichols’ past still plagued her. In September 2016, an Indianapolis Star investigation first made Nassar’s abuse public. By fall 2017, a handful of prominent American gymnasts, including Olympians Alexandra Raisman and McKayla Maroney, had publicly identified themselves as victims. Through it all, Nichols began to privately confide in Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler about what she had endured, wrestling with what she should do.

“You have to trust somebody; you have to build a bridge,” Kindler said. “Our relationship became stronger, and then last year we had lots of long conversations and I helped her figure out how she would present this to the world.”

The uncertainty of how the news would be received unsettled Nichols. She didn’t know what reaction her words would garner, how her life might change. Kindler said Nichols once asked to cancel a planned announcement in the eleventh hour — she wasn’t ready. But, by January 2018, just before the Sooners were about to embark on their season, she told her coach she wanted to release her statement. On Jan. 9, she did.  

“I felt that it would help myself but also help others,” Nichols said. “I saw other girls come forward. I gained a lot of strength knowing I wasn’t alone.” 

After the announcement, her apprehensions faded — the support, publicly and privately, proved overwhelming. Kindler addressed the team, breaking the news. Then, Nichols wept as her teammates embraced her. “My sisters,” Nichols calls them.

Messages poured in from other prominent gymnasts and the public at large. Kindler saw her team’s star emotionally drained throughout the season, so she and Oklahoma did what they could to shield her from the barrage of interview requests until she was ready. Still, Kindler said Nichols’ commitment in practice never wavered, despite the emotional toll of finding herself near the center of a maelstrom that had battered the country’s gymnastics community.

In April, Nichols captured the individual all-around NCAA championship. She hadn’t let Nassar rob her of her love of the sport. Instead, it became the place where the chaos and turmoil of recent years went quiet, where she could do the work that enables her to inspire the innumerable girls who ask for autographs and pictures, who tell her just how much she means to them.

“If I was struggling with this situation, every time I went into the gym, I felt free,” Nichols said. “I showed myself that I can overcome any difficult thing that comes my way — and grow even stronger from it.”

She has shown that to more than just herself.

Maggie Nichols will be honored with a 2019 Inspiration Award on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the NCAA Honors Celebration in Orlando, Florida. The award is presented to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter winner at an NCAA institution. It is reserved for people who used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome a life-altering situation, and most importantly, are role models giving hope and inspiration to others.