By Matt Kyle | Staff Writer
Former Team USA and University of Oklahoma (OU) gymnast Maggie Nichols spoke Wednesday about her experience as a survivor of sexual assault. The event was sponsored by the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office as part of its events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Nichols began gymnastics at age 3. At age 14, she competed internationally for Team USA and was a top contender for the 2016 Olympics. She was the first gymnast from Team USA to report the sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, and she was featured in the documentary “Athlete A” about the USA gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. Nichols is currently a student assistant coach for OU’s gymnastics team, where she won multiple championships as a student-athlete.
Nichols said she is passionate about sharing her story in order to help others.
“If I share my story, I can help at least one other person come forward or feel comfortable speaking up about something that they went through,” Nichols said. “I went back and forth about whether or not I should come out publicly, but I ultimately was watching a lot of the other girls come forward. It really inspired me and gave me courage.”
Nichols said she overcame many challenges during her gymnastics career, which made her both mentally and physically tough. She also said it is important to prioritize one’s mental health as an athlete.
“I’ve had tendons torn right off the bone,” Nichols said. “I have ruptured my plantar fascia and could barely walk on hard ground for weeks. Many of these injuries happen during or right before some of the biggest events of my life. But that didn’t keep me down. If there is one thing that an elite-level athlete learns, it’s resilience.”
Nichols said her faith and love of gymnastics helped carry her through the hard times she faced. She said she hopes her story impacts others to use their voice for what they believe is right.
“The biggest challenge for me was just wondering what people were going to think of me afterward,” Nichols said. “But ultimately, I was doing it to help other people. I didn’t really care what other people thought. I really hope that [my story] gives people the courage to make change in our society and feel the courage that if something happens to them, whether it’s the same as mine or different, they can speak up and use their voice.”
Plano sophomore Marigrace McDowell said she felt the event was important to attend because sexual abuse is not talked about enough in college.
“Being able to put these issues out in the open and invite conversation, whether you’ve experienced it or not, is important,” McDowell said. “I really liked that she recognizes the sexual abuse she went through is like a part of her story, but it’s not what defines her. She can use the challenges she faced in a capacity to help others.”
Houston sophomore Ria Shani said she came to listen to Nichols because she is a fan of Team USA gymnastics and had watched the “Athlete A” documentary. Shani said she believes Nichols’ advice was most credible because she is a survivor.
“The most important thing was that she’s gone through it,” Shani said. “So her advice really means a lot more than a pamphlet. I’ve grown up watching her, so every word that she says is meaningful.”
Nichols said she had some worry about her story overshadowing her success as a gymnast, but she wants to be remembered as someone who overcame obstacles.
“I want to be remembered for my courage and resilience,” Nichols said. “I want to be remembered as more than just the gymnast and the accolades. I want to be remembered as the person who overcame the injuries and the difficult times.”