Maggie Nichols' average day? Autographs and selfies new normal for OU gymnast turned hero
NORMAN — Maggie Nichols was still trying to figure out where all of her fall-semester classes were on the first day of school when another student approached with a request.
"What?" Nichols thought. "I'm so confused."
Nowadays, such requests are more common and less confusing for the Oklahoma gymnast. Stardom normally reserved on college campuses for the quarterback or the point guard has come to Nichols.
No doubt she's a marvelous gymnast. She won the NCAA all-around title a year ago and stands atop the national rankings again this season. Her team is also the best in the land but will face its biggest test of the young season Friday when second-ranked Florida comes to town.
But Nichols' star is about more than gymnastics.
Nichols stepped forward a year ago and revealed she was "Athlete A," the first gymnast to report sexual abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar to USA Gymnastics. She had done so in 2015. USA Gymnastics was slow to respond, and as we now know, many more gymnasts were abused by Nassar as a result.
"I want everyone to know that he did not do this to Athlete A," Nichols said a statement a year ago. "He did it to Maggie Nichols."
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She didn't just say, "Me, too."
She also said, "Enough!"
Because of her strength to step up and speak out, she has been called a hero.
"I can't really put it into words," she said of such a lofty association. "People do see me that way. That's really cool."
Equally cool is the fact that even as Nichols was dealing with the publicity swirling around the Nassar case last year, she had one of the best seasons ever by a college gymnast. She scored eight perfect 10s, including one on the uneven bars at the NCAA Championships, and she scored a "Gym Slam," scoring a 10 on every event at some point during the season.
Such excellence would win over gymnastics fans.
But Nichols transcended not only her sport but also all of sport. She became an icon because of her perfection under pressure. She wasn't just brave and courageous. She was those things while going out and sticking landings and hitting handstands.
Nichols' life changed as a result.
She has received awards. She was one of more than a hundred gymnasts who received a standing ovation when they were honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award last summer. Then last week, she was given the NCAA Inspiration Award.
But really, those are just formal recognition of what Nichols hears from people every day.
Some reach out on social media, Twitter or Instagram. They tell her how much she inspires them with all that she's done. They say thanks. They offer good luck.
Some approach her on campus. Yes, she's still getting used to having other students come up to her and ask for a selfie or an autograph. Just the other day, a fellow student tweeted at her saying that a roommate had come home fawning over the fact that she'd simply seen Nichols on campus.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Nichols replied. "I'm just a normal student."
Well, kind of.
Nichols has become so popular that everyone around the OU campus knows her by her first name. Like Kyler or Baker or Trae or Blake or Sam. She's just Maggie.
But the thing she loves most are the little girls. Lots of times they are gymnasts, too, and they crowd around the rails after meets and scream her name.
"Maggie! Maggie!" they plead. "We want a picture!"
"Really?" she'll think. "They want my picture?"
But in those moments, she thinks back to when she was girl growing up in Minnesota. Her parents would take her to gymnastics events at the University of Minnesota. After every meet, there'd be an autograph line, and she'd go even though she already had every signature from the last time she was there.
"When I was growing up," Nichols said, "I was that little girl."
Now, she's the gymnast being looked up to by all the little girls and so many others. It's a level of fame that few college athletes realize and even fewer college gymnasts do.
But Maggie Nichols isn't burdened by it.
She is buoyed.
"It's really inspiring," she said, "knowing that I'm inspiring other people."
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
NO. 2 FLORIDA at NO. 1 OKLAHOMA
•When: 6:45 p.m. Friday
•Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman
•Tickets: General public, $10 to $15. Seniors, $8. Go to SoonerSports.com or the Lloyd Noble Center box office.