INDIANAPOLIS -- Maggie Nichols had much to prove as the P&G Gymnastics Championships kicked off Thursday night.
After she finished third at the same meet last summer, an injury kept her off the U.S. team that went on to win a world championship. Then a couple of returning Olympians made the field vying for spots in the upcoming world championships and next summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games even that much more crowded.
For Nichols, who has never competed in an Olympic Games or world championships, this week’s competition is her opportunity to show national team coordinator Martha Karolyi that she belongs in that discussion.
Competing in a field that included three Olympic champions and a reigning world champion, the 17-year-old Nichols managed to steal the show on Thursday until the very last moment.
She maintained first place through the first three rotations and ended the night in second after two-time world all-around champion Simone Biles nailed a difficult Amanar vault to close out the competition. Nichols ended the night with 59.7 points, 1.4 behind Biles.
“I really wanted to show everyone that I was consistent and that my hard work was paying off,” Nichols said of her goals for this week. “And I wanted to show everyone how powerful I was getting in the gym. I was working so hard, and I wanted to show everyone that I could be towards the top.”
Who ends up at the top will be determined Saturday night, when the women compete once more. The scores from both nights are combined to determine the national champions.
After Nichols’ performance at last year’s U.S. championships — her first as a senior — she looked like a lock for the 2014 world team. But on Aug. 30, while competing at the 2014 Pan American Championships, she dislocated her kneecap on her final tumbling pass on floor.
A determined Nichols was able to finish the meet with a full on vault, leading the U.S. women to a gold medal and herself to all-around bronze. After that, however, she was sidelined for six months.
“I was very disappointed, don’t get me wrong, but I think it motivated me,” Nichols said. “I knew what I wanted in the back of my head. I knew God had a plan for me. It happened for a reason.”
Nichols, a Minnesota native, was determined to come back stronger, and by February she was able to again perform routines.
“I was in the gym every single day doing strength and extra toe point and therapy,” Nichols said. “I didn’t miss an hour in the gym. I was there the whole time and I was cheering on my teammates, and I was trying to get mentally and physically stronger during that break. I never missed gym.”
Before even competing in Indianapolis, Nichols had proven herself to the person who matters most when it comes to world championship and Olympic team selection. Earlier this week, Karolyi, who has led U.S. athletes to 79 Olympic and world medals, declared Nichols to be the most improved athlete of this four-year cycle.
“In the beginning of the cycle, she was just an average, new elite, and every year she has been very serious, very committed, very dedicated,” Karolyi said. “And I think at this moment she is showing world-class gymnastics with clean, technical work.”
Biles, who last year was deemed “the most talented gymnast ever” by 1984 Olympic all-around champion Mary Lou Retton, was able to overcome Nichols on Thursday night, despite having a fall on floor and looking shaky on beam. That didn’t deter Nichols.
“It just shows how amazing she is,” Nichols said. “Like honestly, she’s my biggest role model. I look up to her so much even though she’s my best friend.”
Among the other headlines Thursday was the return of 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas and 2012 Olympic floor champion Aly Raisman, who finished the night third and fourth. Both had nothing but praise for the up-and-coming Nichols.
"Maggie's a very, very hard worker and she's very consistent,” said Raisman, who won the floor exercise in addition to the team title and beam bronze at the 2012 Games. “I'm really happy for her because she works really hard. ... She came back from her injury and she looks better than before. I think it’s really inspirational for any person who has an injury, because she looks unbelievable."
While Nichols counts Biles, Douglas and Raisman as her “best friends,” thanks to their time spent together at national team camps, she continues to be in awe of them on the competition floor.
“It’s just an honor being able to compete against them,” she said. “It doesn’t feel real to me that I’m competing against Olympic champions, a world champion.”
And in just one year, she, too, could have both titles to her name.