Trigger warning: The following story discusses Athlete A, a documentary containing descriptions of sexual abuse.
If you googled gymnast Maggie Nichols a month ago, the results were filled with news stories about her dominant NCAA career as the “Jordan of college gymnastics.” Despite the fact that her senior season at the University of Oklahoma was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, Nichols squeezed in five perfect 10s and was the number-one-ranked vaulter. But today Nichols’s search results (and DMs) are filled with mentions about another aspect of her life—her role as “Athlete A” in the army of women that brought down convicted pedophile Larry Nassar in 2018.
Nichols was certainly not the first to be abused by Nassar, but in 2015 she became the first athlete to report his abuse to USA Gymnastics. (A USAG-appointed expert stated, after interviewing Nichols and another gymnast, that “the information that Maggie and later a second athlete provided was important, but did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred.” USAG then referred the allegations to the FBI. Nichols and her family maintain that USAG didn’t act quickly enough. USAG has denied any wrongdoing and litigation against the sport’s governing body is still ongoing.)
As allegations began to unfold in the media, she initially remained anonymous, but now her story is the subject of new Netflix documentary Athlete A, which premiers today. “It kind of took me a while to decide whether or not I want to come out publicly, but I came to the realization that if I did, I could help one person or even help hundreds of people,” Nichols says. “I saw other girls and other survivors come forward, and it inspired me to come forward. I’m really proud that I did.”
The case of Nichols and the hundreds of other women and girls who came forward to report their abuse was pivotal because it demanded our attention. Maggie Nichols, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher—one after another after another, women chose to relive their trauma in order to make sure the next generation of girls wouldn’t have to. Their voices had power—and they secured justice.
In the fall Nichols will enter the next phase of her gymnastics career: coach. “I’m really excited to be on the other side of the sport,” she says. “Everyone’s gymnastics style is different, which I love, and I’m really excited to help each and every person that’s on the team become the best version of themselves.”
On the eve of the Netflix release of Athlete A, we spoke to Nichols about coming forward, how she learned to love gymnastics again, and how she’s working to make the future of gymnastics a safe place for girls.
Your gymnastics career was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. After everything you’ve given to the sport, I imagine that had to be devastating.
Before it got canceled, my senior season was amazing. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for anything better both for my team and myself. We were number one from start to finish and I was number one all around. So aside from these circumstances, I don’t think I could have ended my season and my career any, any better. That’s something that eases my mind when I think about the what-if; like, what if we could have gone to Nationals?
When my coach told us that our season was done, it was difficult to process. The first thing I thought was that my career was done. But the other seniors, we kind of hung out together for a few days and talked about fond memories. We worked so hard throughout the whole season and ended as good as we possibly could.
Athlete A should be required viewing, in my opinion. How did you decide you wanted to tell your story in such a big way?
At the beginning it was a little bit tough just because I was in classes and competing. I kind of had to take a step back and realize that this documentary is going to be so important and it’s going to educate so many people and open the eyes of so many. So I knew that all of the interviews and all the filming would be worth it in the end.
After seeing the documentary, I’m very excited by how it turned out and how truly powerful it is. I think that a lot of people don’t realize how horrible the case really is and how many people were affected. It’s extremely raw and real.
There’s obviously such power in sharing your story, but the other side of that coin is that you have to relive it, in a way. How do you feel now that so many more people will see your story who may not have known about it in 2018?
I’m really excited [about the film], but also very nervous at the same time. I’ve had a ton of people reach out to me on social media and saying how proud they are of me for speaking out and making this documentary and that it’s going to touch so many people. So I’m really excited for that part. I’m just a little bit nervous because it is such a sensitive subject, but I’m more excited for it because it is very powerful and I think that it’s definitely going to help a lot of other people who may have gone through the same thing.
How do you cope with the difficult moments of sharing your story?
My teammates and my really close friends—they always support me no matter what. I also talk to some of the other survivors because, you know, they go through hard days too. Being able to talk to them and support one another is something that really helps as well. When I was in gymnastics still competing, that was an outlet for me—anytime I was at practice or competing kind of got my mind off things.
One of the reasons this case got so much attention was because of the number of survivors who came forward. What do you think needs to happen for the public to take one woman’s voice just as seriously as 100 women’s voices?
I think that with this movie so many people are going to learn and be educated on how serious sexual abuse really is—you really never know how many people are affected by just one abuser.
How do you hope that the experience of being an elite gymnast will be different for girls who are entering the sport now?
I mean, I just hope and believe that there will be a lot of change that will be made and any report [of abuse] that is filed will be taken care of right away. I hope that any girl just feels safe with the sport that she’s doing. No one should feel the way us elite gymnasts felt—like we couldn’t speak. I just hope that they have the ability to share their voice.
What was the highlight of your gymnastics career?
I would definitely say one of my proudest and one of my most memorable moments is my freshman year here at Oklahoma when we won the national championship. It came after a year of elite gymnastics and not making the Olympic team and going through all that and then coming to OU. I was a freshman and everything was so new. I loved my team. I loved competing. I fell in love with the sport of gymnastics again.
What do you hope your legacy is as a gymnast?
I don’t want to be remembered just as “the gymnast.” I want to be remembered as an inspiration, someone who people looked at who spread positivity and inspiration and strength, um, you know. The gymnastics part is amazing, but also the things outside of gymnastics as well—I want to be someone that people can look up to for their hard work, their inspiration and positivity.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Macaela MacKenzie is a senior editor at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour