By John Powers
Maggie Nichols is the envy of every American high-school senior. Their graduation day is months away and most college acceptance letters have yet to be mailed but Nichols already has finished her studies and has accepted a scholarship to NCAA powerhouse Oklahoma. And if all goes well, she’ll have an Olympic gold medal hanging around her neck this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
"It’s been very nice," said the 18-year-old Nichols, who’ll begin her Olympic season as a top contender in the AT&T American Cup at Prudential Center in Newark on Saturday afternoon. "I can wake up a little bit later. I’m not worried about doing schoolwork before I go to the gym. I can just focus on everything that I need for gymnastics. Resting the body and therapy. I can have acupuncture every so often, I can get a massage. I can train whenever I need to."
That was the objective when Nichols sat down with her counselor at Roseville Area High School in Minnesota and mapped out an accelerated course plan that allowed her to finish last December. Now, she can devote herself to the lopsided life required of an Olympic hopeful in the months leading up to the Games.
Nichols put herself in that position by winning a team gold and a floor bronze medal at last year’s World Championships after having missed the 2014 event with a dislocated kneecap. Her mission now is not just to make the team for Rio but to be one of the two gymnasts competing for the all-around gold medal that has been collected by an American at the last three Games.
That was why Nichols was chosen along with Olympic champion Gabby Douglas as one of the two U.S. performers for the AT&T American Cup against an international field that includes world-teamers from Japan, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Brazil and the Netherlands.
"It could be a good event for Maggie being in an individual setting because she really never went to a competition that was an individual all-around," said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. "She was part of the team and from there she qualified for some things. It’s a different feeling, so we gave her the opportunity."
Nichols had a preview at the World meet where she was the only American to go up on all four events in the team final. What she has is the quality that Olympic team selectors value most — predictable steadiness under maximum pressure.
"Maggie never missed a routine last season in any competition," said Karolyi. "She is going in the right direction right now. She handles very well the pressure, and she is one of those girls who really likes to perform. Sometimes gymnasts get a little intimidated, but not her. It’s more, turn on when the competition starts, and she enjoys doing that."
Nichols was 14 when the American Cup last came around in an Olympic year, watching Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman and Douglas in awe. "I was just trying to become an elite," she recalled. "I was looking up to them and wanted to be like them. So being here now is very cool that I’m actually following in their footsteps."
Every one of the eight U.S. women who’ve won this meet in a leap year have gone on to make the Olympic team that summer and three of them (Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin) claimed the all-around gold. "That’d be great, to make a big statement and show everyone that I can do very well in the all-around," said Nichols. "That I’m a strong competitor and can be very consistent and help the U.S."