Oklahoma women’s gymnastics coach K.J. Kindler didn’t know if Maggie Nichols would compete in the all-around competition at last weekend’s NCAA championships until, oh, about a minute before Nichols’ floor routine.
The Little Canada, Minn., native and Roseville High School grad hadn’t performed a floor routine in competition since mid-January, the result of a torn plantar fascia in her foot. But one member of Oklahoma’s floor routine rotation suffered an injury in regionals, and someone had to step up to help the Sooners try to advance to the championship round of the team competition. Who better than Nichols, if she was ready?
“It tipped the scales to where we felt that we should pursue it more aggressively, because we really were trying to be patient, make sure we were making the right decisions for her and making sure she stayed safe and recovered well,” Kindler said. “All of those things that a good coach would want to do for their athlete, and so we just ended up being in a unique position, and I started thinking, ‘How could we make it happen?’ ”
So, in the week leading up to nationals, Nichols and her coach modified her routine from a three-pass routine to a two-pass routine to limit stress on Nichols’ foot and her knee, which was ailing from a bone bruise. The stage was set for Nichols to compete in the all-around, but Kindler still wasn’t sure it would happen.
Nichols had to be feeling good physically as the end of the meet approached. That was the case. Nichols already had crushed her vault, uneven bars and balance beam routines. So, on the final routine of the final rotation, Kindler and the coaching staff decided to have Nichols take the floor — “the minute before she did (it), really.”
At that point, Kindler admitted she didn’t feel any lack of confidence, despite her star gymnast completing just two practice floor routines before heading to nationals. This was Maggie Nichols, after all.
“I knew if she was feeling great, she would make her floor routine,” Kindler said. “Honestly, I don’t lose my breath when Maggie goes. If we’re putting her up there, we feel really confident.”
Nichols threw down a 9.925 on her floor routine, easily enough to secure Oklahoma’s place in Saturday’s national finals, which was her primary focus. She had done her job, and, as it turned out, quite a bit more.
As she got off the floor and her score was revealed, Nichols received unexpected news from Kindler.
“KJ was like, ‘You just won,’ ” Nichols recalled. “I was like, ‘What? What did I win?’ She was like, ‘You just won the all-around.’
“I don’t know, it just didn’t feel real.”
How could it? This was storybook stuff.
After being sidelined from the all-around for most of the season — she competed on floor just three times before the foot injury — Nichols stepped onto the grandest stage and successfully defended her NCAA all-around title with a score of 39.7125, topping UCLA’s Kyla Ross — an Olympic gold medalist — and the Gophers’ Lexy Ramler, who tied for second with a score of 39.6625.
“I just want to tell you, this is amazing,” Kindler said. “It is amazing that she did that.”
It would be amazing under any circumstances. Nichols is just the fifth Division I gymnast to win back-to-back titles in the all-around, and the first since 2007.
“It kind of feels surreal to even think that I’m in the same category of the other people that have achieved that, but I don’t know, it’s just really cool,” she said. “To be able to still take the all-around, and going back to back, it’s surreal.”
Nichols’ injuries caused her to sit out not just the floor but also vault for part of the season. Kindler recalled two meets in which Nichols aggravated injuries.
“I was battling the few little injuries that I did have the whole season,” Nichols said. “They weren’t healing, and they’d get better, then they’d get worse again, so it was kind of frustrating.”
Kindler said those injuries forced Nichols to surrender control. No longer could she compete in every event for the Sooners, so she had to increase her cheerleading responsibilities. She shined there, too.
While Nichols was upset she couldn’t do floor — one of her favorite exercises — for much of the year, “my team stepped up for me and someone else got the opportunity to compete.”
When she did get a chance to compete in the all-around last weekend, helping the team reclaim the national team title it relinquished by a slim margin a year prior was her primary mission. And a night after Nichols won the all-around crown, the Sooners did indeed win the team title by a healthy margin. It was Oklahoma’s fourth title in six seasons and second in Nichols’ three years on the squad.
This title carried a little extra meaning for Oklahoma. The Sooners won the championship in honor of Dave Richardson, the husband of the team’s trainer, Jenn Richardson, who died from colon cancer in February.
This year marked the first in which Nichols captured the coveted all-around/team title sweep.
“That was incredible. It feels so good,” Nichols said. “Last year, winning the all-around and then coming up a little bit short as a team, it was very disappointing. I wasn’t even excited to win the all-around. It’s all about the team. This year, coming out on top, with the team and the all-around, it’s so amazing. It was all of our hard work paying off.”
Kindler said most people likely didn’t expect Nichols to compete in the all-around last weekend in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a shock to the coaches, too.
But, Kindler noted, athletes like Nichols are uncommon, both with her inner strength and resilience, and also her belief.
“She has definitely made a name for herself in collegiate gymnastics,” Kindler said. “But not just that, across the world people look up to her. And they should look up to her for this moment, because it’s different than her past moments. She had to work through a lot of things this year, a lot of adversity, a lot of obstacles, and she did it in a very team-forward way.”
Nichols doesn’t think she’s going to return to the senior elite level to make a run at the 2020 Olympics — “I’m just getting old and the body is hurting a little,” she said. That means her next collegiate season, her senior campaign, likely will be her last hurrah in competitive gymnastics.
She’ll have a chance to make more gymnastics history next spring. Only Kentucky’s Jenny Hansen, a Somerset, Wis., native, has three-peated in the all-around. Nichols could join that exclusive club next season.
It’s hard to bet against her.
“I”m just going to stay focused on doing my best gymnastics, staying healthy, staying in shape, trying to get better than I am now. Keep improving, but not really focus on that yet,” Nichols said. “I just want to enjoy every minute, soak it all in. It flies by, the four years, and you only get this opportunity one time, so to enjoy everything that I’m doing, just be happy all the time, take it in with my teammates and coaches and just try to do my best for the team and try to win another national championship.”