FORT WORTH, Texas -- After two monumental seasons for Oklahoma, junior Maggie Nichols was poised for another incredible year heading into the 2019 gymnastics campaign. But then she injured a heel in January, and suddenly everything changed. She was unable to compete a floor routine, and for most of the season she did only uneven bars and balance beam. As she focused on her health, defending her individual NCAA all-around title was the furthest thing from her mind.
Until, that is, earlier this week.
She made her return to vault in the regional semifinals earlier this month, but she still wasn't cleared for floor. Finally, the 21-year-old started training for the event, with some modifications to make it easier on her injury, when the team returned back to Norman. Just on the off chance her team would need her in the semifinals, or beyond.
Nichols was feeling confident and back to form but still wasn't expecting to compete on floor at Friday's semifinal meet. However, when another teammate got injured and someone needed to step up in the spot, she found her way back into the lineup.
It was her first time competing in all four events in a meet since Jan. 11.
Once the meet ended, she stood alone atop the final podium of the night. When the arena announcer said her name as the all-around champion, she looked around seemingly in disbelief as she tried to stifle a laugh.
"Um, yeah, I was surprised to have won," Nichols said shortly after repeating. "I wasn't focused on winning at all; I really just wanted to go out there and hit my routines for my team and advance to the second day. When [Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler] told me I had won, I was like, 'What? Really?' It's such an honor, and it had crossed my mind that it was a possibility earlier in the night, but I really wasn't thinking about it."
With a final score of 39.7125, she edged out UCLA's Kyla Ross, the season-long favorite for the title, and Minnesota's Lexy Ramler by .05 points. She also tied for top honors on vault (9.95) and for second place on bars (9.9375). Finishing up the night on floor, she scored a 9.925, more than enough to seal the win. She still managed to find some flaws in her performance, but overall said she was happy to achieve her ultimate goal of the night: advancing to Saturday's national championship meet.
"I mean, I had a hop on my beam dismount," she said. "And I could have done better on floor. And on bars as well. But my focus was getting us to the second day here, and we're doing that. I'm so, so pumped. Today was such a surprise, but it all came together so perfectly in the end."
"I wasn't focused on winning at all; I really just wanted to go out there and hit my routines for my team and advance to the second day." Maggie Nichols
Nichols' victory was hardly the only surprise of the day. While three of the teams -- Oklahoma, UCLA and LSU -- making it to Saturday's final four are perennial favorites for the title, the fourth team raised more than a few eyebrows. Denver -- yes, Denver -- stunned Oregon State and Georgia for the last bid with a final rotation for the ages to make it to its first-ever gymnastics final.
Tied with the Beavers for second following three rotations, the Pioneers headed to bars with a chance to make history. While the team didn't have history or experience on its side, it made up for it with grit and composure. Led by Lynnzee Brown (9.9) and Maddie Karr (9.9125), the Pioneers combined for a solid 49.3875 on the event.
"Most of us did notice how close the score was [going into the final event]," said Brown, who also won a share of the floor title with a 9.95. "But our coaches told us, 'It's not about the scores right now; it's about making memoires for our seniors and our coaches.' We did a little huddle and we reminded ourselves we're doing it for ourselves and because we love gymnastics. That helped us remain calm and stay focused.
"It feels amazing. We always talk about character, teamwork and excellence in our program, and just knowing that we're doing this for the people that came before us and put all this work in, it is just really rewarding."
Denver's previous best finish was ninth place in 2017. When the final Oregon State beam score was announced and the final team result flashed on the screen, Denver's gymnasts screamed as they jumped up and down and hugged, their fans rewarding them with a standing ovation. It seemed hard for head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart to fully put her emotions into words after the meet.
"I'm just incredibly proud of our team and our student athletes," she said. "They have just continued to show tremendous character and competitiveness and consistency. I'm incredibly proud."
It remains to be seen if Denver can keep the surprises coming on Saturday, but Kindler, the Oklahoma coach, certainly thinks it's possible.
"I want to congratulate Denver because that was awesome," she said. "It's great to have a new team in that final night. That's what great about our sport -- anything can happen. You can work your way up to the top. You can get there."
More takeaways from Friday's semifinals
Nobody's perfect -- even Katelyn Ohashi
Katelyn Ohashi, UCLA's viral phenomenon and 2018 floor champion, looked to be all but a lock to defend her title as she cruised through the season with six perfect scores (and a music change). However, Friday was not her day, and she earned a 9.9125 and a share of seventh place.
"My first pass was a little 'urgh,'" she said later in the afternoon. "But I had a blast out there. Other than that pass, it was cool and I enjoyed it."
While Ohashi and others (including her teammate Ross) received a multitude of perfect scores throughout the season, the judges were slightly less generous on Friday. Neither session featured a perfect 10, much to the crowd's chagrin and chants to the contrary.
Utah falls short
It was a disappointing day for Utah, as the team failed to advance to Saturday's finals. Finishing in last place during the day session, the Red Rocks earned a season-low score of 196.725. Averaging the second-highest team score in the nation during the regular season on vault, Utah struggled on its signature event and earned just a 49.225.
Even MyKayla Skinner, the team's star junior and 2016 Olympic alternate, fell short of her usual success. The runner-up in the 2017 and 2018 all-around competitions and the champion on floor in 2017 and vault in 2018, Skinner didn't make the top three in any event, finishing in seventh place in the all-around race. She told reporters after the meet she would announce in a few days if she will return to the school for her senior year or leave to make a run for the 2020 Olympic team. She said she already has made her decision.
Individual qualifiers had a strong showing in both sessions. Ramler earned a share of second place in the all-around competition and on bars. Auburn's Derrian Gobourne was one of four gymnasts to share the vault title, and Florida's Alicia Boren tied for first on floor.