For half a decade now, Simone Biles has reigned supreme as America’s sweetheart, not just as the greatest gymnast of all time, but also in her second act as the highest-profile victim of convicted serial abuser Larry Nassar. At a congressional hearing convened to investigate just why it took so long to lock the former national team doctor behind bars, Biles offered testimony with three other gymnasts. Two gymnasts, McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman, were also Olympians celebrated nationally. The third you may not know: Maggie Nichols, the Olympian who should have been.
The reason you may not know Nichols is the very reason for the hearing in the first place. The powers that be brought Nichols’s soaring gymnastics career to a halt to protect a predator, killing her Olympic dreams because she happened to be the first victim to inadvertently speak up about being sexually abused by Nassar.
The documentary Athlete A — named after Nichols, the first to report Nassar to USA Gymnastics — details the demise of Nassar and USAG in excruciating detail, but the truncated version of Nichols’s story still puts into perspective just how deep the rot went to protect Nassar.
While at the National Team Camp at the remote Karolyi Ranch in rural Texas, Nichols’s coach overheard her telling a fellow gymnast how Nassar’s abuse passed as “treatment” for severe back pain. Horrified, the coach pressed Nichols about the molestation, ultimately reporting it to USAG. President Steve Penny told Nichols and her family to keep quiet, claiming USAG would investigate and report the abuse to the FBI. Nothing materialized, and the world team member headed to the 2016 Olympic trials, where she was seen as a favorite to make the team for Rio.
Nichols scored sixth overall, fourth in floor, and fifth on vault. Yet despite scoring better overall than returning (but noticeably older) Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian, not only did Nichols not make the Final Five, she wasn’t even chosen as an alternate. The main team ultimately comprised Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez, with MyKayla Skinner and Ashton Locklear, who both scored within a single point of Nichols overall, as alternates. (Ashton Locklear was brought in as a third alternate but solely as an uneven bars specialist.)
We all know the two endings to the story. On television, the nation cheered for the Final Five, which put on one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Olympic showing in women’s gymnastics history. Nichols, on the other hand, retired from elite gymnastics, ironically extending her career thanks to the less strenuous toll of competing in college gymnastics, where she dominated the sport until the pandemic brought the world to a halt.
But all of the girls, winners and losers alike, were then revealed to have been abused by Nassar. Nichols could have and probably would have been a part of that GOAT team had she not come forward.
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