Nicole Ahsinger competes on the trampoline at the 2016 USA Gymnastics Championships at the Dunkin' Donuts Center on June 11, 2016 in Providence, R.I.
No, there’s nothing in Nicole Ahsinger’s eye. And no, she’s not blind — though a website once erroneously reported that after she made a joke to a writer.The truth is, the San Diego native can’t explain why she gets a twitch in her left eye. She just knows that it happens whenever somebody mentions the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
“It started at the last Olympic trials,” said Ahsinger, who qualified in June as Team USA’s lone women’s representative in trampoline gymnastics, “and ever since then, any time someone brings up the Olympics my left eye just starts going off.”
In truth, the twitch is barely noticeable if she doesn’t point it out. It’s a minor nuisance, really. And it should be going away soon — Ahsinger competes on Aug. 12.
In a deeper way, though, the nervous tic is a tiny window into a much larger story, a story like many of those that led athletes to Brazil this month.
Largely anonymous compared to artistic gymnastics counterparts like Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, Ahsinger’s Road to Rio still began when she was 3 years old. After countless hours in the gym, a cross-country move and a healthy share of skepticism — you’re leaving high school to do what? — she achieved her dream in June when she secured her spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
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It was an emotional journey that only a few people in the world could understand, yet even talking about the accomplishment could be awkward, since two of the gymnasts she beat out happen to be her training partners and roommates.
And after qualifying, now she’s actually in Rio to compete for the gold medal.
So if she slows down to think about it too much, the whole thing can be kind of overwhelming.
“I haven’t really been thinking about (the Games),” Ahsinger, 18, said last month. “I kind of keep it in the back of my head. I get a little stressed out. … Every time I think about the Olympics, my eye just starts twitching.”
Ahsinger’s Olympic debut next week will culminate nearly a lifetime of effort.
The Ahsinger family had a history in gymnastics, with Nicole’s mom Michelle having been an artistic gymnast growing up. But a history of injuries in her career left Michelle determined to find a different sport for her daughter.
So, when Nicole was 3, her dad Steven took her to a trampoline and tumbling — called T&T — class, figuring it was different enough from the balance beams and uneven bars that Michelle grew up on.
“I came home that day and I said, ‘Mom I’m going to the Olympics,’” Nicole said. “She was like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“And of course my father got in trouble.”
At the time it was a cute thing for their little girl to say — I’m going to the Olympics! — but Nicole was enthusiastic about the sport, and her parents saw T&T as an opportunity to help Nicole with her early-life balance issues.
It turned out Nicole just needed glasses, which she finally figured out a few years later, but her Olympic aspirations remained, so she continued competing in both trampoline and double-mini trampoline — and she continued getting better and better.
At age 12, she made the junior national team and soon after gave up double-mini, and from there she went on to the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games and the senior national team. That’s when Nicole’s initial declaration began to seem possible.
“My mom was like, ‘Oh, you made the Youth Olympics, you’re on the senior national team, like, you can do this,’” Nicole said.
The requisite sacrifices followed. Ahsinger left her high school after sophomore year to achieve a more flexible education and training schedule. Then, last summer, she moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, to train with Dmitri Poliaroush, a two-time Olympian and former world champion for Belarus.
The move paid off. Under Poliaroush. Ahsinger said she is jumping higher and performing with more consistency. Those improvements helped her go from a likely 2020 Olympic hopeful to a 2016 Olympian.
Now she hopes to make the event finals in Rio, and winning a medal would be “icing on the cake,” she said. So she put her head down and kept training, doing her best to push thoughts of Rio — and the eye twitches that come with them — into the background.
“It’s a little difficult,” she admitted in early July.
After all, she was speaking to TeamUSA.org from San Jose, California, where she joined the other U.S. gymnastics qualifiers at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Gymnastics. All were introduced to the sold-out crowd at SAP Arena.
The San Diego TV stations had already begun calling for interviews by then.
“I’ve been FaceTiming them,” she said, “and they’ve been video taping the FaceTime and putting it on the news, which is pretty cool because I’ve never had to do that before.”
What’s been the most touching, however, has been the outpouring of support from her local community. The friends who watched her leave and couldn’t understand why, the high school teachers she never got to learn under, neighbors she didn’t know she had — suddenly Ahsinger’s sacrifices started to make sense to all of them, too.
“When I made (Team USA), like so many of the people back at home, people that I didn't even realize would know about me (reached out)” she said. “Teachers that were with my friends would talk to me and wish me congratulations. The principal and stuff like that.
“My hometown, everyone started reaching out to me. That was pretty cool because no one really thought it would be true, and then it happened and they were like, ‘Wait, we know this girl. We’ve been around her for so long.’”
So if you see Ahsinger’s left eye twitching a bit Friday in Rio, don’t worry. The idea of making the Olympic Games after 15 years of work might be emotional, but when she climbs onto the trampoline she knows she’ll be ready.
“When I salute and I stare at the judges, it’s not that feeling of ‘I’m so nervous,’” she said. “It’s that feeling like, ‘They get to watch how good I’ve gotten, and I just want to show everyone what I’m capable of.’
“So when I do my routines and I finish and I salute back, and I see the judges and I see my coaches, it all pays off.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.