In the world champion's new memoir, she opens up about her time with USA Gymnastics, sexual abuse by Larry Nassar — and about being so hungry at a competition she sneaked a bowl of broccoli
Maggie Nichols was part of a powerful USA Gymnastics team alongside teammates Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian that had already taken gold at the 2015 World Championships. And Nichols was widely expected to join the team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. But off the mats, the gymnast was struggling with Team USA coordinator Marta Karolyi’s demands to be thinner, pressure that led to an eating disorder. And like many of her teammates, she was also being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. Nichols was 'Athlete A' — the first on the team to come forward about the abuse in 2015 — and she says that revelation may have cost her Olympic dream. She wasn't named to the team. Nichols went on to become an NCAA champion gymnast for University of Oklahoma. In an exclusive interview in this week's issue of PEOPLE, Nichols opens up about her time as part of USA Gymnastics and shares an excerpt from her new memoir, Unstoppable!.
Maggie Nichols has a sense of pride when she sees pictures of herself as a teen, tiny and tenacious in her Team U.S.A. leotard. “I worked so hard to get so strong,” the gymnast says of the hours she trained in hopes of making the 2016 Olympics. But at the same time, “I look back and I want to hug that girl, because she was tired and hungry and hurting.”
During her four years with USA Gymnastics, Nichols, now 26, was subjected to verbal abuse, pressured to lose weight and sexually abused by Team U.S.A. doctor Larry Nassar, who was later convicted for his crimes.
In her new memoir Unstoppable! Nichols says that collective trauma led to an eating disorder: “My weight was something I could control. It was all I thought about.” And she writes that her decision to speak out against Nassar likely contributed to her losing a spot on the Olympic team. But despite the setback, Nichols went on to become an eight-time college champion at the University of Oklahoma, and today, “I’m so much stronger as an athlete and as person.”
Nichols was 14 in 2012 when she arrived on the doorstep of her dream: the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, where Bela and Marta Karolyi, legendary coaches of gold medalists like Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson, trained Team U.S.A.
Nichols had been doing flips in the gym near her home in Little Canada, Minn., since she was 3. By the time she made it to the ranch, she was laser-focused on the Olympics. She made fast friends with her roommate Simone Biles and at times placed just behind her in competition. Nichols’s tall, muscular build gave her power, but Marta Karolyi saw it as a problem, not an asset, and demanded the gymnast lose weight.
“I was shocked,” says Nichols. “I was young, so I didn’t think about body image before.” The shame—and dieting—began immediately. “I did everything to fit myself into the body they wanted. When you want to be the best, you’re willing to do anything to succeed. I wanted it so bad.”
In this exclusive audio clip from her memoir, Nichols describes competing at the 2015 world championship in Glasgow, Scotland, after coming forward about Larry Nassar's sexual abuse:
She counted every calorie, cut out all carbs and was told she needed more workouts on top of her gymnastics training. At one point she was down to just 6.5 percent body fat, but Marta Karolyi still berated her one day after seeing her grab a banana from a bowl of fruit. “I look back, and I’m like, geez,” she says. “But in the moment I told myself it was normal.” Her coach once sneaked a bowl of broccoli to her hotel room during a competition just so she could have something to fill her stomach.
Perpetually hungry and starved of anything other than protein, Nichols says her fatigue led to injuries. And that led to sessions with Nassar, where he assaulted her under the guise of treatment, as he did with several teammates including her close friend Biles, 26.
In 2015, before helping Team U.S.A. win gold at the world championship, she was the first on the team to accuse Nassar of abuse. The next year she was left off the roster for the Olympic team. “Possibly coming out hindered my chances . . . but it helped so many others, so that’s a win,” she says.
USA Gymnastics spokesperson Jill Greer says the organization has since “embraced a journey of cultural change” and no longer has a relationship with the Karolyis. (Nassar is serving a life sentence for his crimes.) “USA Gymnastics is deeply sorry for the trauma and pain that survivors have endured as a result of this organization’s actions and inactions,” Greer says.
Days after Nichols learned she wasn’t chosen for the Olympics, she retired from elite gymnastics. She continued her career as a collegiate athlete at Oklahoma, where “We were treated like royalty.” She thrived, winning the individual championship six times and leading her team to two titles.
Nichols, who’s recently engaged and graduated with a master's degree in education, now works as a personal trainer in South Padre Island, Texas. She also advocates for victims of abuse through her Maggie Nichols Foundation.
“I hate to think of what-ifs. I try to see the positive,” she says of readjusting her dreams. “I wish I could tell my younger self the Olympics isn’t everything. When a door closes, another swings wide open.”
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