By Maggie Nichols as told to Nick McCarvel

Last week, Maggie Nichols announced her retirement from elite gymnastics as a four-time U.S. medal winner and member of the 2015 World Championship gold-medal winning team, where she also won individual bronze on floor. Here, she talks about what gymnastics has meant to her, and the decision around walking away from elite gymnastics at this moment.

When I was a little girl, there was this wishing well at one of the malls near where we lived. I remember asking my mom for a penny and throwing it in, and my wish would always be to make it to the Olympics. I can remember that. I can remember dreaming about going to the Olympics. Even before I was an elite gymnast, like every little girl, I wanted to be an Olympian.

I started gymnastics when I was 3 years old because when I was really young, my parents couldn’t keep me in my crib. I was climbing up the stairs, climbing on everything and almost getting hurt. My parents put me in gymnastics where it was a little bit safer because I was such this crazy little kid. When I started, I loved it from the beginning. I was flipping at my house and thinking about gymnastics non-stop. I have always loved it so much.

I loved getting new leotards, too. I had a lot of hand-me-down ones from my cousins and I thought they were the coolest things. I had this one red leo with a flamingo on it and it was the best thing ever. I think I wore it all the time, like to three practices a week. I remember it distinctly, how it looked and felt.

The more competitions I did, the more I realized what kind of work I needed to put in. I started progressing really fast. Going to camps was what motivated me the most: I wanted to be one of the best.

I was 13 when I qualified for my first P&G Gymnastics Championships. It was actually in my hometown, St. Paul. In one of my practices, I dislocated my kneecap and couldn’t compete.

The next year, it was in St. Louis. I was far from the best – I think I was 11th in the all-around – but I just thought it was so cool to be there. I remember walking into the huge arena and competing on podium, which I thought was such an awesome experience. It opened my eyes to my strengths and weaknesses, to what I needed to work on. Martha Karolyi was watching every routine, every turn, which I’ll never forget.

When I hurt my knee this April, I never stopped thinking I had a chance to make that Olympic team I had dreamed about for so long, but I knew the challenge that lay in front of me. The clock was ticking, and time was short. I had surgery and recovery; it was so difficult. I tried to stay motivated and positive and do the best that I could. I wanted to have no regrets.

Making it to the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose was such an honor. I didn’t think two months before that I would be in that position or be as strong as I was. I was really proud of how I performed. After I hurt my knee, the doctors were telling me how much time I needed before I could start running or jumping. It was a lot to take mentally because I was watching all of the other girls getting better and better. I felt like I was always catching up and never at the level I wanted.

I had been dreaming about the Olympics since I was a little girl. All of those hard days in the gym were to make that team. When I hurt my knee and when I entered that process of recovery, all I thought about was the Olympics. When we got into the selection room in San Jose, I still thought I had a chance at least of being an alternate. But I trust the committee: they’re doing what’s best for Team USA.

I had some tears after that – both happy and sad. I was proud of how far I had come in my recovery and how well I performed at trials. I was blessed to be there. I had been thinking about this for a long time and talking with my family, so I knew that if I made the Olympic team or not, I was going to retire from elite gymnastics. It was my time to move on, time to go on with my career.

I was offered a spot to go down to The Ranch to train at the Olympic camp, but I turned it down because I was happy with the way I performed in San Jose. I wanted to end my career with a bang. That second night of trials, I had so many amazing feelings. After I finished my beam routine, it was the happiest I’ve ever been after a competition.

When I was growing up, I never actually knew if I would go to the Olympics. As you get older, you realize how hard it actually is to make that team, how many things have to go right. I think I made that little girl proud, that little Maggie proud. I’ve been through so many hard times and injuries and hard days that I pushed through, so I’m very proud of that.

For me, the next chapter is about to start. I can’t wait.

With love,