ST. LOUIS -- A knee injury kept Maggie Nichols from getting where she wanted to at the international level. It didn’t stop her from grabbing an NCAA title less than one year later.
Led by Nichols, Oklahoma secured its second consecutive title and third in the past four years on Saturday at the National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. The Sooners scored a 198.3875 and were followed by LSU, Florida, UCLA, Utah and Alabama.
“I’ve never felt such feelings before. I’m so proud of my team and, I don’t know, I’m on top of the world right now,” Nichols said. “I’m on cloud nine. I’m speechless.”
Nichols was a standout on the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the 2015 world championships, but her elite career was interrupted when a knee injury required surgery last April, and it ended when she hadn’t yet regained peak form by July’s Olympic trials. That all seemed like a distant memory this weekend in St. Louis.
On Friday, Nichols was one of six co-NCAA champions on the uneven bars, and she followed that in Saturday’s Super Six team finals by scoring event highs on the vault and balance beam, on which she notched a perfect 10. Nichols also had the Sooners’ high score on bars and tied with A.J. Jackson for the team-high score on the floor exercise.
Her coach enjoyed watching her talented freshman shine at this new level and embrace the difference between collegiate gymnastics and elite competitions.
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“The team aspect is just so engrained in collegiate gymnastics,” K.J. Kindler said. “Your personal goals, all those things are secondary and the team comes first.
“It’s a new mentality for a lot of people. They have to slash and claw and fight to get on those national teams and get an international assignment. Here as a team, they get to bond with people they competed against their whole careers, and that bond is really special.”
Nichols wasn’t the only athlete with elite international experience competing.
Two of the bigger names were the first Olympic gold medalists ever to compete at the college level. So, while Chaifetz Arena might not have had the crowds of Rio or London and the glare of the big stage was slightly smaller, UCLA freshmen Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross still relished the experience.
“It’s very different competing in college than it is competing in elite competitions,” said Kocian, who won a team gold medal and uneven bars silver last summer in Rio. “The atmosphere is totally different. It’s a team sport, truly a team sport. I was always used to focusing on myself and getting awards for myself.
“But now, it’s really you’re doing it for your team, you’re giving everything for your team. You rely on all of their support and their love. It’s really fun out here.”
Ross, who helped the U.S. win Olympic team gold in 2012, won individual NCAA titles on balance beam and uneven bars on Friday night, the latter as part of the six-way tie.
The Super Six was loaded with former national team members — as well as the daughter of one of the most famous gymnast in U.S. history. Along with Nichols, Kocian and Ross, three other competitors Saturday previously won a world title with Team USA: MyKayla Skinner (Utah), Brenna Dowell (Oklahoma) and Madison Desch (Alabama). LSU’s Sarah Finnegan was one of the Olympic alternates for Team USA in 2012, and her LSU teammate McKenna Kelley is the daughter of Mary Lou Retton, who won the United States’ first Olympic all-around gold medal in 1984.
The influx is new to collegiate gymnastics. But is it a trend?
“I hope so,” Kindler said. “I mean what great notoriety they’re bringing to NCAA gymnastics, and to see them to go to the Olympics and then to see them to enjoy it the way we enjoy it in the NCAA.
“And it’s still intense and it’s still tough, and it’s still all of those things but you can see they’re regaining that deep love for it.”
This wave of elite athletes coming into the collegiate ranks view the stakes differently. It’s not that they don’t want to do well or that championships aren’t important; it’s more that they have nothing more to prove individually.
“This is just for fun for me, now,” said Kocian, a 2015 co-world champion on uneven bars and team world champion in 2014 and ’15. “I’ve accomplished all of my goals I wanted to. Becoming a three-time world champion and winning two medals at the Olympics.
“This is just to enjoy the support and to enjoy the college experience and to just really have fun with my team. And I’m really having a lot of fun out here.”
Nichols concurs. The Minnesota native wanted to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and to wear the nation’s colors on the biggest stage. But she’s more than happy to be representing the University of Oklahoma.
“Winning this championship was one of my biggest goals and made me fall in love with this sport even more,” she said. “All those hardships and hard times, this made it feel like it was meant to be.
“I’m just so proud of myself for getting through those hard times. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Jason L. Young is a reporter from St. Louis. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.