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'There’s a lot of magic about Maggie': Why OU gymnast Maggie Nichols' greatness goes beyond records

Maggie Nichols is arguably the greatest all-around female gymnast in NCAA history, but perhaps her best event is vault. She's scored seven perfect 10s on vault during her career and was the NCAA co-champion on vault last season as a junior. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN]
Maggie Nichols is arguably the greatest all-around female gymnast in NCAA history, but perhaps her best event is vault. She's scored seven perfect 10s on vault during her career and was the NCAA co-champion on vault last season as a junior. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN]

NORMAN — Kelly Garrison-Funderburk remembers clearly the first time she met Maggie Nichols.

Garrison-Funderburk was at OU’s gymnastics facility when Nichols, then a freshman, walked in. Right away, Garrison-Funderburk noticed the confidence. Not arrogance but rather confidence rooted in experience.

Garrison-Funderburk knew that attitude because like Nichols, she had been an elite-level gymnast before becoming a Sooner. She had put in the practice. She had performed on the big stages.

She hadn’t seen much of Nichols’ gymnastics before that day almost four years ago, but Garrison-Funderburk knew what was in store.

“I expect you to break every record I ever set,” she told Nichols that day.

Garrison-Funderburk laughs about that now.

“I’m sure she thought, ‘Big deal. Of course I will,’” Garrison-Funderburk said.

Nichols has not only wrest the title of greatest OU women’s gymnast away from Garrison-Funderburk — a four-time national champ and two-time Honda Award winner as the nation’s top gymnast — but Nichols has also become one of the greatest in NCAA history. With her Sooners facing Iowa State on Friday in the first of three home duals in the next two weeks, Nichols has a chance to add to her legacy.

So, does she have a chance to be the greatest?

“She’s one of those hall-of-fame level contributors to women’s college gymnastics,” said Bart Conner, the legendary gymnast who now does TV commentary. “She’s just a flat-out winner.

“The analogy’s a little weird, but she’s the kind of person you want to have the ball at the end of the game.”

Nichols is a gamer, and the evidence is plentiful.

She’s won back-to-back NCAA all-around titles, something only six gymnasts in the history of the sport have done. If Nichols claims the national title again — she’s posted three of the top four all-around scores in the nation this season, including the top two — she would become just the third gymnast to win three all-around crowns and only the second to go back-to-back-to-back.

And Nichols doesn’t just save her great performances for the postseason. She has posted four all-around scores of 39.900 or better during her career, and all of them have been during the regular season.

(For the uninitiated, women’s gymnastics has four apparatus, each with a maximum score of 10.000 points, meaning the best possible score in the all-around is 40.000.)

In the history of NCAA women’s gymnastics, there have only been 10 scores of 39.900 or better.

Nichols has four of them.

“The scores can speak for themselves,” Kathy Johnson Clarke said, “because routine after routine after routine, she puts up a big score every time. But more than that, she puts up a big performance.”

Johnson Clarke, who was an Olympian in 1984 and now does commentary for ESPN, knows gymnastics scoring is subjective. The same routine may score differently, so she doesn’t base Nichols’ greatness on the numbers.

“What really makes Maggie extraordinary is her gymnastics, is the way she presents herself,” Johnson Clarke said.

Nichols is both strong and elegant, aggressive and refined. Watch her, even with an untrained eye, and you will be impressed by the way she combines the athletic and the artistic.

But to the trained eye, Nichols is even more masterful. She is refined; Garrison-Funderburk loves Nichols’ toe point and flexibility. She is precise; Conner points to her refined technique. She is extremely aware of her body position, too. Johnson Clarke, for example, has watched Nichols on dismounts and known from her body position she wasn’t going to stick a landing. But by the time Nichols hit the mat, she had gotten herself in position to stick.

“She makes those minute corrections midair,” Johnson Clarke said. “She has figured out what to do with the arms, the torso, the hips, the legs. Everything just works together so beautifully, so masterfully that she can pull out a stick almost out of nowhere.

“There’s a lot of magic about Maggie.”

Nichols’ power goes beyond the mat, of course. She was “Athlete A” in the Larry Nassar case, the first gymnast to step forward and say the longtime national-team doctor sexually assaulted her. That is significant. That is powerful. And while that is part of her story, her status as one of the greatest college gymnasts is about much more than that.

Nichols has won titles and set records despite a knee issue throughout her college career. Before the 2016 Olympic trials, she injured her right knee, tore the meniscus and needed surgery. She nearly made that Olympic team — many insiders believe she should’ve made it — but even though the knee healed, it is never far from Sooner coach K.J. Kindler’s mind.

She has had to stop Nichols on occasion.

“She usually says no,” Kindler said, “and then I say, ‘No, I think this is the right thing for you.’ And after like a five-minute conversation, she agrees. But she does fight you on those things sometimes.”

But over time, Kindler has realized Nichols can still perform with limited practice.

“We haven’t had a lot of athletes like her who are able to work through those kind of things and still show up,” Kindler said. “A lot of times, without those numbers behind them, (gymnasts) can’t get out there or they don’t have the ability to put the pain over here.”

She motioned her hands to the side.

“And she has both of those things.”

Just one more thing Nichols has going for her.

For Kelly Garrison-Funderburk, no one thing makes Maggie Nichols great. It is the combination of everything. The style. The scores. The substance.

“Every department, she’s got it above and beyond,” Garrison-Funderburk said. “That’s what makes the difference.”

She knows the sports world loves numbers, loves to gauge its stars by them, and as good as Nichols’ numbers are, Garrison-Funderburk believes Nichols’ greatness goes well beyond them.

“A stat does not define Maggie Nichols,” she said. “Never will.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

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Iowa State at OU

When: 6:45 p.m. Friday

Where: Lloyd Noble Center

TV: Fox Sports Plus (Cox 68)

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Perfection

In addition to four all-around scores of 39.900 or better during her college gymnastics career, Maggie Nichols has scored 19 perfect 10s. The OU senior has scored them on vault and balance beam seven times each, on uneven bars three times and on floor exercise twice.

Her total ranks seventh in NCAA women's gymnastics history.

1. Jenny Hansen, Kentucky, 1993-96, and Jamie Dantzscher, UCLA, 2001-04, 28

3. Hope Spivey, Georgia, 1991-94, 24

4. Kim Arnold, Georgia, 1995-98, and Kyla Ross, UCLA, 2017-present, 21

6. Karin Lichey, Georgia, 1996-99, 20

7. Maggie Nichols, OU, 2017-present, 19

Related Photos
<strong>Maggie Nichols has already won two NCAA all-around titles and six total individual national titles. The Oklahoma senior may well add to her resume over the next two months. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN]</strong>

Maggie Nichols has already won two NCAA all-around titles and six total individual national titles. The Oklahoma senior may well add to her resume over the next two months. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d35851fd4457581ca54223d465b618d7.jpg" alt="Photo - Maggie Nichols has already won two NCAA all-around titles and six total individual national titles. The Oklahoma senior may well add to her resume over the next two months. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN] " title=" Maggie Nichols has already won two NCAA all-around titles and six total individual national titles. The Oklahoma senior may well add to her resume over the next two months. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN] "><figcaption> Maggie Nichols has already won two NCAA all-around titles and six total individual national titles. The Oklahoma senior may well add to her resume over the next two months. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-686649a0c871b2a1491c1c17d23d4cfa.jpg" alt="Photo - Maggie Nichols is arguably the greatest all-around female gymnast in NCAA history, but perhaps her best event is vault. She's scored seven perfect 10s on vault during her career and was the NCAA co-champion on vault last season as a junior. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN] " title=" Maggie Nichols is arguably the greatest all-around female gymnast in NCAA history, but perhaps her best event is vault. She's scored seven perfect 10s on vault during her career and was the NCAA co-champion on vault last season as a junior. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN] "><figcaption> Maggie Nichols is arguably the greatest all-around female gymnast in NCAA history, but perhaps her best event is vault. She's scored seven perfect 10s on vault during her career and was the NCAA co-champion on vault last season as a junior. [CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN] </figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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