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Oklahoma gymnastics star Maggie Nichols shines light on abuse

Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler (right) presented Maggie Nichols with the NCAA Inspiration Award. Nichols confided in Kindler before going public about her abuse. NCAA Photos archive

Maggie Nichols was the first gymnast to report to USA Gymnastics sexual abuse by now-imprisoned physician Larry Nassar. Three years later, she went public with her story. For her bravery, Nichols received the 2019 NCAA Inspiration Award. The 2018 all-around NCAA national champion talked with Jack Ford on Champion’s podcast, “College Sports Insider With Jack Ford,” to discuss how coming forward has reshaped her life.  

 

Jack Ford: What drew you to gymnastics?  

Maggie Nichols: I started gymnastics when I was 3 years old. My parents put me in it because I was climbing over the furniture, climbing over fences. They thought it’d be smarter and safer to put me in gymnastics, where there are mats — and coaches watching over me.  

JF: Do you remember ever thinking to yourself that you might be talented enough to compete somewhere like Oklahoma or maybe even the Olympics?  

MN: Ever since I was little, I set that goal of wanting to compete at the NCAA level and get a scholarship. When I was 11 or 12, I really knew that I could achieve those goals.   

JF: Around 2015, you and your coach at the time came forward to USA Gymnastics to tell them that you had been victimized — you had been subjected to acts of sexual abuse during the course of your training. Why did you decide to disclose that? 

MN: I knew that something wasn’t right, and I knew that if it was happening to me, it was happening to other athletes as well. I didn’t know how many or who else was going through it, but I knew that something wasn’t right. I brought it up to my coach, and she said, “That’s not right. That’s not correct. That’s not how you’re supposed to be treated.”  

JF: You were the first person to come forward with these accusations. Did you know definitively that there were others who had been subjected to the same acts?  

MN: I wasn’t completely sure. I brought it up to a few of the other athletes, vaguely, and asked them if he was doing the same treatment to them. I did not know how many people he was actually doing it to.  

JF: What happened after you came forward in 2015?  

MN: Actions eventually started to be taken — not as quickly as they should have. As the time went on, more and more people started to come forward. More than 100 people said they were abused as well. It was crazy for me to see how many people were actually affected.   

JF: Were you able to invest yourself 100 percent after that in your training and in your striving to get to the Olympics? Or was there anything, emotionally, you felt held you back?  

MN: A little bit, yes. It was always in the back of my mind. After I came forward, it took awhile to have the whole story come out to the public. People didn’t really know. I would think about that often when I was training and going to national team camp.  

JF: Fast forward to 2018 — at that point, there had been developments in this scandal. There had been prosecutions, convictions and a jail term imposed upon the man who was behind all of this. What was your sense at that time? Were you starting to become more reassured about how things were being handled, or were there still frustrations?  

MN: After you go through something like that, you want to see changes happen right away. After three years and things are still not completely resolved, it’s frustrating. What’s helped me is that I look at the positives of everything that’s going on in my life. I focus on my gymnastics career and school. 

JF: You had been the first one to come forward, but there wasn’t a lot disclosed in terms of identities and specifics. You then made the decision that you were going to identify yourself publicly. In court documents, there was a reference to “Athlete A,” and you decided that you were going to come out and say to the world, “I, Maggie Nichols, am Athlete A.” Why did you do that?  

MN: It took awhile for me to decide whether I wanted to come forward publicly, but I came to the conclusion that coming forward would help not only myself, but it would help other girls and other people going through the same thing. I could be an inspiration for them and use my platform and my voice to help others. I could inspire them to speak about what they’re going through.  

JF: Did many of your teammates know about this before you came out and said, “I am Athlete A?”

MN: Only one of my teammates knew before I came forward publicly. The day before, my coach and I brought the whole team together, and we told them that I was going to go public about the situation. I told them my story. After I came forward, they had so much support for me and so much love. They’re like my sisters. 

JF: It’s been about a year or so since you made that announcement. How, if at all, has your life changed?  

MN: I think my life has changed in a few different ways. For one, I’ve grown as a person — I’ve grown a lot stronger physically and mentally. Also, I feel like I’ve been more of an inspiration to a lot of different girls and older people, as well. A lot of people look up to me now. 

JF: If, in a conversation with a younger female gymnast, they say to you, “I’ve had problems, too” — regardless of what those issues might be — what kind of advice can you give them to help them get through that and continue with both their gymnastic careers and their lives?  

MN: I would tell someone who may be angry or going through a hard time to look at the positives. Set your mind on the goals and the dreams that you’ve set for yourself. That’s what I really like to do because what you’re going through is going to make you a stronger person in the end.  

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the podcast here.    

 

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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