Summer 2015. Young athletes from the U.S. Women’s Scaffolding Country Team are familiarly gathered in Huntsville, Texas. The remote Karolyi Ranch has been the main training center for the national team since 2001.
Béla and Márta Károly, who jumped from Romania to the United States in 1981, have been training under the watchful eye of one Olympic winner after another. The couple in their seventies will serve as the coordinators of the national team. Márta Karolyi has been choosing the World Cup and Olympic teams for years.
The training center has strict rules. Parents have a gate ban and telephone connections do not work. There are seven hours of training a day.
Margaret Nichols, a Minnesota native, is 17 years old. A gymnast known by the nickname Maggie has risen to the national team two years earlier. Now his career is on the rise. In many bets, Nichols will be seen as an almost certain Olympic representative for next year’s Rio Olympics. Simone Biles is already at her own level at the time, but Nichols is second in pecking order.
A series of events begins in the space called the back room of the training center, which contributes to revealing the darkest scandals in the culture and one of the sports histories that the US Gymnastics Association is passing through.
Pictured are Maggie Nichols (right), Simone Biles (center) and Kyla Ross at the P&G Championships 2014. In addition to Nichols, Olympic winners Biles and Ross have also reported being victims of Nassar exploitation.
Photo: Amy Sanderson / ZumaPress / MVPhotos
Netflix’s recent documentary Athlete A: The Story of the Gymnastics Scandal tells the story of an abuse that has shaken the world and is strongly linked to scaffolding. Larry Nassar, a former physician on the women’s national team, took advantage of the young athletes for years, both on the national team and in his work at Michigan State University.
He disguises his actions as medical examinations and treatment procedures.
Nassar is currently serving two lifetimes of sexual exploitation of hundreds of children and young people. He has also been convicted of possession of child pornography.
The ugly scandal does not end in Nassar. In 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an article that the U.S. Gymnastics Association, a reputable USA Gymnastics, had disguised and concealed reports of abuse.
At the national team camp, Nassar takes care of Maggie Nichols' back.
- I was embarrassed and wondering what it was. It didn’t feel right, Nichols recalls in the documentary.
Nassar touches Nichols ’intimate areas and puts his fingers in her vagina. Nichols has undergone a lot of physical therapy, but the treatment has never been like that. He asks a friend a few years older, London Olympics double champion Aly Raisman, if Nassar’s treatments are normal. Raisman says Nassar does the same for him.
Nichols personal trainer Sarah Jantzi happens to hear the gymnasts talk. She calls Gina Nichols, Maggie’s mother, then Rhonda Faehn, vice president of USA Gymnastics. The next day, CEO Steve Penny calls Gina Nichols. Penny promises the union will take care of the matter and report it to the police. It takes weeks. USAG will begin its own investigation and quickly close it in vain.
- We were told that we would jeopardize the FBI investigation if we spoke publicly, Maggi's father John Nichols says in the documentary.
In November 2015, Maggie Nichols was part of the U.S. team that won World Cup gold. He also achieved a personal permantopron bronze at the Games in Glasgow.
Nichols then competed in the championships for the last time.
He injured his knee in April 2016 and began the race with rehabilitation; he had been dreaming of the Olympics since he was 9 years old, and the qualifiers in Rio were in July.
Nichols struggled to get himself in shape and finished sixth in his slightly eased series. Five full representatives and three alternates were appointed to the Olympic team. The score list was not stared directly, but the final choice was made by Márta Karolyi and Steve Penny.
They were two influential people who both knew Nichols had reported Nassar's inappropriate contact.
Nichols battled into the Olympic qualifiers in the summer of 2016, but was left out of the team.
Photo: Brian Peterson / ZumaPress / MVPhotos
Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian, who finished 7th and 8th behind Nichols, were selected for the actual team, with Ashton Locklear, who raced with only two racks and finished last, was named reserve due to his different levels of wood skills.
Nichols was left out of the whole team. His Olympic dream crumbled.
Gina and John Nichols, among many others, suspect that Maggie was played out of Rio because of the Nassar incident. Earlier, Steve Penny had banned Nichols from appearing in a promotional video that Simone Biles had invited a friend to do.
In the Olympic qualifiers, no seats were reserved for Gina and John Nichols unlike the other parents.
“She was beaten in the hands of USAG, Steve Penny and Larry Nassar, and I just wanted to take my child out of there, bring him home, hug and love him,” Gina Nichols recalls.
Maggie Nichols ’career on the national team ended in qualifiers.
The title of the documentary, Athlete A, refers to Nichols, who is now 22 years old. Under that name, the first gymnast to report to the U.S. Gymnastics Federation about Nassar was known in the reports.
Nichols and hundreds of other young women should never have been exploited by Nassar. The University of Michigan, for example, received its first complaints about Nassar as early as the late 1990s, but they were either not believed or were swept under the rug with little sound. Nassar was not fired from the university until September 2016.
It will be 15 months since Nichols announced that Nassar will be allowed to continue caring for and exploiting young athletes.
In a public sentencing hearing in January 2018, a total of 156 victims made statements. In all, there are more than 500 known victims. Gina Nichols read her daughter's words in front of Nassar:
- I want everyone to know that he didn't do this to Athlete A. He did it for Maggie Nichols.
After the Olympic disappointment, Nichols switched from elite gymnastics to university gymnastics.
He became one of the most successful gymnasts in NCAA history. Swaggie Maggie won two NCAA championships and a slew of personal titles in the ranks of the University of Oklahoma.
He is also the first university gymnast of all time to have succeeded twice in GymSlam, making a full ten worth of performances on all four racks.
After her hard experiences, Maggie Nichols rediscovered the joy of gymnastics at the University of Oklahoma. Picture of the 2019 NCAA Championships where Nichols helped with the Oklahoma Championships. He also won a personal quadruple gold medal, gold jump and silver from multi-level trees.
Photo: Kyle Okita / ZumaPress / MVPhotos
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Nichols ’career in Oklahoma didn’t get the climax he deserved when the NCAA championships had to be canceled.
Next school year, he will continue his studies while serving as a volunteer student coach for his former team, the Oklahoma Sooners. He is considering a career as a coach and gymnastics commentator.
Steve Penny resigned as CEO in March 2017. In connection with the Nassar case, he is accused of falsifying evidence and is awaiting trial.
Rhonda Faehn, Executive Vice President, resigned in 2018. Károly’s couple is no longer involved in coaching activities. Karolyi Ranch, where several national team gymnasts were exploited, is permanently closed.
USAG went bankrupt. Nichols and many others have sued the union. According to a report released last year, the USAG and the U.S. Olympic Committee “knowingly covered up Nassar’s actions”.
Nichols, Raisman, Biles, and numerous other top gymnasts have called for championships in a grabbing but athlete-betrayed federation with complete ventilation and cultural change.
Despite all her experience, Maggie Nichols has said she still loves scaffolding.
Maggie Nichols airs at the NCAA Championships as the winner of the quadruple match. Kyla Ross, a former national team gymnast on the left and a victim of Nassar exploitation, found the joy of gymnastics at the university, in her case at UCLA, like Nichols.
Photo: Kyle Okita / ZumaPress / MVPhotos
Sources: Athlete A: Gymnastics Scandal Story (Netflix), ESPN, Elle, SB Nation, Harpers Bazaar, StarTribune.