Gymnast Maggie Nichols Wants You to Know the Truth


Former elite gymnast Maggie Nichols was just 15 years old when Larry Nassar sexually abused her under the guise of treating a back injury. She was the first athlete to report his abuse to USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics in the U.S., but instead of taking action, top brass actively worked to bury the complaint. What followed was a horrific sequence of continued abuse, widespread cover-ups, and alleged retaliation against Nichols for coming forward. Despite being a top contender and finisher at the Olympic trials, she was left off the 2016 team.Now 22, Nichols is telling her story in Athlete A, Netflix’s new documentary following the IndyStar’s investigation into one of the biggest scandals in sports history.We talked to the gymnast about coming forward in such a big way, her new role as a college gymnastics coach, and what comes next for USA Gymnastics—which is being sued by 140 athletes who claim the organization fostered an abusive environment for decades.
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What made you decide to tell your story in Athlete A?I was asked [by Athlete A filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk] whether or not I wanted to participate, and I definitely wanted to, because I want to help in any way I possibly can. I [want to] impact other people, and help other people who may have gone through something similar. Seeing other girls and other survivors, especially Aly Raisman and Rachael Denhollander, come out publicly is what inspired me when I was deciding whether or not I wanted to come out publicly too. They are so strong. This is a really sensitive subject, something that I have a hard time even talking about now. But truthfully, I was more excited than nervous for this documentary to come out, because it’s educational, and also extremely powerful. I think that it’s going to open the eyes of so many people. I think you’ll see just how many [of us] were affected.
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There’s an implication from your mother in the documentary that you didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team, in part, because you reported Nassar’s abuse. That’s what some people have said, but I try not to think about or speak on that too much, because I gave it everything I had at Olympic trials. It was really disappointing. Every gymnast has a dream to make it to the Olympics. I did have an injury leading up to trials, so I wasn’t quite at my peak. Simone [Biles] was my roommate at trials, so we were together the night [they announced the team]. We talked a lot about it. She was sad and I was sad, but I was really excited for her. We just tried not to dwell on the situation. I told her how proud I was of her and she said the same thing to me. I took about a week off from gymnastics after that, which is the most I’ve ever had my whole career. That was a time for me to reflect on my elite career. You made the decision to step away from elite gymnastics, and focus instead on competing at the collegiate level. Yes, it was kind of like a transition period for me, because I ended up calling my coach at the University of Oklahoma where I [competed as a collegiate gymnast], and asked her if I could come earlier than I was expecting to. That gave me something to look forward to, and really helped me get over the fact that I didn’t make the Olympic team. Going to OU brought positive light to the whole situation. Your senior season at OU got cut short because of COVID-19, which must have been so hard. What’s next?I’ll be the student volunteer coach next year for the OU team, which I’m really excited about. It’s kind of like learning the ropes of college coaching. I’ll go into the gym a few times a week for practice, and get to coach the girls like a real coach. I’ll be able to travel to a few of the competitions as well. [It] will be really exciting to be on the other side of the floor.
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Do you want to turn that into a full-time coaching position? That’s definitely one of the options. I’m treating this as an opportunity to see if I like it and if I want to do it in the future. I’m also looking into sports broadcasting. I just know I want to do something in sports. This next year will be a lot of exploring and seeing what I like and what I don’t like. The way I think about it is that what happened to me did happen within the sport of gymnastics, but it’s still so beautiful and something I’ve loved ever since I was young. I always wanted to become the best gymnast and athlete that I possibly could. I don’t think people shouldn’t look negatively upon the sport.
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There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about the lack of oversight that allowed Nassar to continue to assault hundreds of girls for so long. How can this broken system be fixed? Any reports of abuse, especially of a minor, need to be reported right away to authorities and law enforcement. Complaints cannot just be handled by USAG or Safe Sport [launched in 2017 to address child sex abuse in sports]. Every athlete and every gymnast should feel safe when they’re practicing and competing, or at physical therapy appointments. There needs to be more supervision all around. [Editor’s Note: In response to the release of Athlete A, USAG put out a statement: “We are deeply committed to learning from the mistakes of the past and the mishandling of the horrific abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar. In order to do that, we must listen with open hearts to Maggie Nichols’ story, and the experiences of other survivors, so that we can truly understand the impact it had, and the circumstances that led to it and enabled it for too long. Because of the bravery of Maggie and other survivors who have come forward, there have been transformational reforms across the sport. Within USA Gymnastics, under an entirely new leadership team, we have implemented stronger policies and preventative measures, launched multiple educational efforts, and made sweeping organizational, leadership and personnel changes. Most importantly, we have prioritized changing the sub-culture within our community that allowed this to happen. We owe these survivors an incredible debt of gratitude for igniting these changes across the sport. Despite these changes, we recognize that the work is not yet done. We must keep listening, keep evolving and keep improving—and we are committed to doing so.]This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Rose Minutaglio
Staff Writer
Rose is a Staff Writer at ELLE.com covering culture, news, and women’s issues.

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