Swagged Out

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OK, so you’ve probably figured out that I write about gymnastics as part of my job. It’s easily my favorite thing to do, which I’m sure comes across as strange considering 95 percent of my gig is covering either one of the NFL’s most popular teams, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, one of baseball’s comeback stories and a major Division I University. And all those things have their moments when I’m like “man, this is pretty cool. I’m a lucky dude.”
Yet there is nothing like gymnastics. Nothing. The reason is simple: access, freedom and respect.
Access as in access to the athletes at a time when more and more walls are being put up between those that make the plays and those that write about them. And I totally understand the reason there’s more availability in gymnastics – or horse racing, or IndyCar or any of the other “niche” sports I’ve written about — as opposed to the Big 4 (Big 5 if you count colleges) is because well, usually there’s nobody writing about them most of the time so they’re happy to have us, particularly if you work for the world’s largest news organization.
It’s the exact opposite in the NFL, for example, where there are more of us in the press box and locker room than ever, catering to different masters, different platforms, different agendas. Too busy trying to come up with something on twitter (I am GUILTY AS HELL OF THIS) or a GIF or something shareable than to take the time (or have the ability to) make meaningful connections.
I do not blame the players for wanting to protect themselves, and by and large the overwhelming majority of pro athletes I’ve covered are courteous and usually OK human beings. Yet., we are also there to help promote interest in their product. No other private business in the world gets the kind of free advertising sports sections/web sites provide on a daily basis. Though while I love to chastise players for keeping us at arm’s length, I get why they do; because the second they screw up or truly speak their mind, the Hot Takers will come for them. And the Hot Takers come for everybody eventually. It’s what they do.
Freedom as in freedom to write – to really write – the way that I want and an editor in Noreen Gillespie Connolly that gives me plenty of rope so long as I don’t try to work unicorns into my copy. Everybody understands baseball. Nobody understands gymnastics, (and Scott Bregman would say I don’t either) but I enjoy the task of trying to translate it so the folks at home who tune in every four years have some idea of how great Simone Biles is, for example.
All of which leads me to respect … and Maggie Nichols. Unless you’ve seen me post about her (or follow me on Twitter) you probably don’t know who she is. And that kinda sucks.
She’s 18. From Minnesota. Probably one of the 10 best gymnasts in the world. Last fall she won two medals at the world championships and was the only American to compete in all four events during the team final, something her BFF Simone (who is also happens to be the world champ and the soon to be Queen of Rio) and reigning Olympic champ Gabby Douglas did not do.
Fast forward nine months. And Maggie’s not going to the Olympics. Her dream died probably the instant she tore the meniscus in her right knee this spring, setting back her training and while she worked her butt off to get back for national championships and Olympic Trials, the truth is she probably needed another month to be close to 100 percent. She wasn’t. So she’s not going to Rio.
She’s a good kid. Hard-working. Smart. Confident. When I started talking to her last fall, I jokingly started something on twitter called the #Swagometer (which is a take on her handle: @MagsGotSwags12).
Surprisingly, in the little part of the world called The Gymternet (look it up), it became A Thing. Like, if she hit a vault I’d tweet something like #Swagometer = nailed it. Innocuous, funny and benignly obnoxious. As Nancy Armour admitted, I made fetch happen.
Maggie thought it was funny. Her father actually made his own Swagometer T-shirt and my friend Jessica O’Beirne had a T-Shirt company come up with another take on to support her fabulous website GymCastic (that’s what’s at the top here). Heck, my buddy Nick Zaccardi wrote a feature on her that basically served as the official #Swagometer coming out party.
I thought _ as Maggie probably thought _ man, when she gets to Rio, #Swagometer totally gonna be one of those things NBC steals and tries to claim as its own A Very Big Deal.
Only I’m going to Brazil. And she’s not. And she probably knew it after national championships last month. The kids, all the kids, can do the math. And they do it often. And unless she was given a time machine so she could heal more quickly, it wasn’t going to happen..
I ran into Maggie and her family in the airport leaving St. Louis. I could tell by the look on her face she knew what she was up against. We talked for a couple minutes. How many years? How many thousands of hours in the gym? How many nights at the National Team Ranch in Texas thinking about this moment in her life? And then it was here and because of one awkward landing, she wasn’t at the level she knew she needed to be at to make what is perhaps the greatest Olympic gymnastics team of all-time.
At the Olympic trials last week, she was better. Not as good as she was last fall, but better. She ended up sixth in the all-around, yet when the five-woman team was announced, her name wasn’t on it. Gabby, who finished one spot behind her and has an uncanny ability to turn it on when it matters, made the cut. Madison Kocian, the world champion on the uneven bars who finished eighth at trials, did too. Based on the way international competition works, the selections all makes sense. And Maggie understood. When Simone was asked afterward what Maggie’s reaction was, Simone looked up at the ceiling to blink back the tears and said “She just said she’s proud of us and go Team USA.”
Maggie didn’t even make the three-person alternate squad either. National team coordinator Martha (important note Gymternet: IT IS SPELLED WITH AN ‘H’) Karolyi chose three gymnasts who are better in their best events than Maggie is in hers (at least at the moment). Karolyi, in her typically blunt way, said basically Maggie wasn’t really in consideration because of the injury.
There was a spot available as the non-traveling alternate, which is the equivalent of “attending” prom because you’re watching it on Periscope. (Is that still around?)
Maggie said thanks but no thanks. Today she “retired” (at 18 … 18) from elite gymnastics. A full scholarship at Oklahoma _ and a shot at plenty of NCAA championship swag _ awaits in the fall. She is crushed, to be sure, about not making the team. But she will get over it.
Why am I telling you this? Because there’s a lot of stuff _ a LOT of stuff _ going on around the Olympics that’s not great. Crime. Corruption. Doping. So-so NBA players and professional golfers saying they don’t have the time or the interest to go despite being invited, an invitation thousands of athletes like Maggie Nichols would accept without hesitation.
Maggie won’t be famous. Not in the way Simone will be famous. Yet her story needs to be told, because there are countless other ones — rowers and swimmers, archers and javelin throwers and all the rest — just like her. Ones who put in the work, who put in the time, who had the talent and yet for reasons beyond their control, it just didn’t happen.
My wife Ellie went to Tulsa. She hates OU. That actually might not be a strong enough word. By proxy, I can’t stand OU either. Yet I’m going to make an exception this one time. I’m down with Maggie Nichols and the Sooners.
The #Swagometer lives on. It has to. See ya in college Swags. Boomer Bleeping Sooner.
Maggie bye
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