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Redemption far from Maggie Nichols' mind in all-around win

Maggie Nichols wasn't focused on redeeming herself from last year. Instead, she's hoping to lead the Sooners to a three-peat. Joe Puetz/USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS -- The most shocking moment of the 2017 NCAA women's gymnastics championships happened on beam.

Maggie Nichols, then the breakout freshman star at the University of Oklahoma, was a favorite to win the individual all-around title on the first day of competition. Known for her consistency, Nichols mounted the balance beam with confidence.

Then nearly everyone in the arena gasped when she fell off on her front tuck somersault. Her only fall of the season may not have been what cost her the title, which went to Florida junior Alex McMurtry, but it certainly took her out of the running for it. Nichols finished in a disappointing 29th place.

A perfect 10 on beam at the next day's team championships helped Oklahoma to a repeat title, but the damage was done. For Nichols and her fans, hopes for an individual all-around win were dashed.

This year, with even higher expectations, she didn't let the all-around slip away.

The clear favorite at Friday's competition at Chaifetz Arena, Nichols impressed with her signature slow, meticulous style, sticking her beam dismount in the first rotation to bring in a near-perfect 9.95. She hit her floor routine and stuck her vault cold. On bars, she finished off the day with a perfect 10, fending off Utah star sophomore Mykayla Skinner by less than a tenth of a point and helping lead the Sooners to advance to Saturday's Super Six.

"Today went amazing," Nichols said.

It certainly didn't come easily. For Nichols to earn the title, she had to best Stanford senior and fan favorite Elizabeth Price, who earned the first 10 of the day on bars; the reigning all-around champ McMurtry; Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross of UCLA; and Skinner, who was a co-champion on the vault.

Nichols was nearly perfect.

She won a share of the national title on the bars and on the floor. During the regular season, she posted perfect 10s on floor, the beam and the vault. She never posted a score lower than a 9.8.

For her, it was only a matter of whether she would hit when it mattered and take what was hers. This time, the all-around title was certain.

"It means the world to me," Nichols said. "To have my hard work pay off is amazing."

But she didn't sound like she had been hankering to beat the other top gymnasts and redeem herself from last year's disappointment. She didn't feel pressured for individual wins; rather, her all-around title was merely a happy by-product of fighting for what she really cares about: her team.

"My main focus was the team. ... I just really wanted to go out there and hit my routines for my team," Nichols said.

The "team first" mentality is something Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler cultivates in her athletes, including Nichols.

"I'm biting my tongue so I don't cry. I'm really proud of her," Kindler said. "She puts a lot of pressure on herself, and it was important to us that we approach tonight as a 'we' meet and an 'us' meet, and it's tough because all of those individual things are on the line, but you have to get their minds straight. We're here for the team, and she totally bought into that. She had less pressure on herself because of that, and obviously the result was wonderful."

That's the great irony: The less she thinks of herself, the better she performs. And she doesn't plan to change anything for the second day of competition as the Sooners look to three-peat.

"I just want to go out there and hit my routines for my team and to experience this with them and to take in every moment," she said.

There has been no shortage of moments to take in. During Friday's semifinals, teammate Jade Degouveia hit her vault, jumping with joy. While Nichols prepped for her own vault, she looked down the runway at Degouveia and smiled. Redemption and individual glory were clearly far from her thoughts.

For Nichols, her team is her priority. The individual titles are just icing on the cake.