PROVIDENCE – Climbing up the dimly lit stairs inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Nicole Ahsinger was in search of one familiar face: Her mother’s.
Nicole was 3 years old when she ran into her parent’s home and – having just completed her first gymnastics class – declared boldly to her mom, Michelle: “I want to be an Olympian! I want to go to the Olympics!”
Sunday the 18-year-old from San Diego made that dream a reality at the USA Gymnastics Championships, qualifying as Team USA’s female trampolinist for the Rio Olympics this August.
“I don’t think it has hit me yet,” an out-of-breath Ahsinger said in a back hallway of the arena. “I just said, ‘Nicole Ahsinger, Olympian’ and I was like ‘Wait! What?!'”
Ahsinger arrived in Providence last week not fully thinking about Rio and her prospects. Charlotte Drury, her national teammate, was by and large the women’s favorite, having sealed the Olympic spot at a test event in April and leading the qualification points race ahead of Providence.
But fate stuck its nose out Friday when Drury suffered a devastating injury, a broken talus on her right foot putting her out of the competition – and Olympic contention.
It also meant that Ahsinger, 2015 U.S. champion Clare Johnson, two-time national medal winner Shaylee Dunavin and Dakota Earnest could realize a childhood dream if they struck the right chords Saturday and Sunday nights.
“Honestly, I came into the competition not really thinking about the Olympics,” Ahsinger said. “It wasn’t really put into my face until right before I competed. It hit me. I just thought to myself, ‘I can do this! I can really do this.’ I texted my mom and was like, ‘I can do this, mom.’ She told me, ‘Yes you can.'”
And Ahsinger did – barely. A stable first night put her into first by 0.55 over Dunavin, but the two points she had earned in the Olympic qualifying process – including a silver medal at the Elite Challenge – gave her a cushion. Sunday she used that to bounce off of.
She climbed onto the trampoline and delivered what she needed to, though the result wasn’t clear.
“It’s going to be really close here,” said USA Gymnastics livestream commentator Peter Dodd.
But when the scores came up, Ahsinger had done enough: Dunavin was national champion by a sliver, and Ahsinger – thanks to those qualification points – was on the Rio team by a sliver.
“When I got off the trampoline my coach, Dimitri (Poliaroush) said, ‘Enjoy the ride,'” Ahsinger said. “And at that point I thought, ‘I think that’s it.’ When I saw the score I knew I had done it.”
From there, it was madness. People were congratulating her left and right, fellow competitors were wishing her well and officials and coaches wanted to talk to her. But Ahsinger had one thing on her mind: I have to find mom.
“I ran up to see her, and people were taking pictures,” Ahsinger said breathlessly. “She was like, ‘Is it official?’ I told her yes and she started crying. She’s very happy. It made me tear up, too.”
Monday, the Team USA Olympic athletes for trampoline head to Italy for a World Cup in Brescia, Ahsinger joined by Dunavin, her roommate, training partner and the replacement athlete in Rio. They’ve traveled a long road together, and now they head to Rio side by side.
“I think we’re going to push each other,” Ahsinger said. “I’m glad that she was chosen because she’s my support and it’s really cool to have someone like that, especially when you’re roommates.”
That little girl who ran home with Olympic dreams is now all grown up – and an Olympian.
“Of course, I’ve always wanted to go to the Olympics, but did I think that it was going to come true? I don’t know; I hope so. I hope so.”