Maggie Nichols, Kyla Ross on returning to NCAA gymnastics championships — in coaching roles

Last spring, two of the most decorated gymnasts in collegiate history were leading their teams on a path to the NCAA championships. Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols and UCLA’s Kyla Ross were both having record-breaking senior seasons with their eyes set on more — until March 12.

The season was abruptly canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, bringing an unceremonious end to the competitive careers of Nichols and Ross.

Nichols, a 2015 world champion with the U.S. team, led the Sooners to two team titles in 2017 and 2019, also winning six individual titles. Ross, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist with the national team, helped the Bruins to a 2018 national team title and earned four individual national titles. While the anticlimactic finish to their athletic careers still stings, both are back with their respective teams as student assistant coaches.

Ahead of this week’s NCAA championships (April 16-17, ESPN2 and ABC), where Oklahoma looks to win its fourth team title since 2016 and UCLA narrowly missed out on qualifying for the first time since 2006 but will have three individuals competing, ESPN revisited a conversation with the two retired gymnasts. Nichols and Ross, who have known each other since their days at the elite level, chatted about their new roles, what’s next and the legacies they believe they left as competitors.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your first memories of one another?

Ross: I think it was when we had one of the championships in your hometown [in St. Paul in 2011].

Nichols: I just remember way back then, Kyla was so good and I looked up to her a lot, even though we were around the same age. Back then, I was just getting into the scene, and Kyla was getting up there, so it was really fun to watch her. I just remember her being kind of quiet, but always really sweet and nice.

Ross: Being in Maggie’s hometown, I think I really was rooting for her and wanting to see her do the best she could, and it being her first year in, I know that’s always so stressful, just getting used to everything, but just wanting to cheer her on.

What was that first day like in your new role?

Nichols: It was really exciting. I really didn’t know what to expect and how I would feel. But I think it’s such a great experience and I feel like I’m still a part of the team. I’m really enjoying the experience and I feel like I have a different perspective than the coaches, because I just did gymnastics last year and so I feel like I can give different corrections and things like that. I just love still being a part of this sport in some way.

Ross: That first practice being back with the team was so rewarding and fulfilling, especially being in quarantine for so long, it’s like you crave that sense of being able to just be near someone, even though we’re technically not even supposed to hug or touch anyone. But just being in that same room and coming in collectively, working toward a goal together, is something that I missed so much over the months we were quarantining.

What do you try to bring to the team in your new position?

Nichols: I always strive to learn every gymnast, because everyone’s different and everyone takes in corrections differently or has different attitudes, so really getting to know the girls personally and athletically.

Ross: For me, I want to take this year and gain as much experience as I can to see if I potentially want to coach in the future, so I think just observing how the other coaches are interacting with the girls is something that I’ve tried to focus on a lot. Like Maggie said, forming those connections, because knowing how that person is doing mentally and emotionally is so important to help them get through the day and be the best physically and understanding what that gymnast needs in that moment.

What has surprised you most about coaching so far?

Ross: I didn’t think this much time and energy went into writing up a workout, but now I know, it is a lot of effort just to try to organize and each day there has to be a main focus. I think just seeing all the behind-the-scenes work of how much the other coaching staff does to ensure the best experience for the girls is something.

Nichols: I think we just realize the things they do outside of the gym. They do so much busy work and [Oklahoma head coach] K.J. [Kindler] does [leotard] designs and all of that. Just so many things I couldn’t even explain. But I think we appreciate them so much more knowing all the hard work they put into our sport.

Ross: Just being able to experience the coach’s side, even just for a day, I think is something that could be really eye-opening to the gymnasts.

Nichols: Also, it’s kind of funny, but just standing there the whole time is so much different than when you’re flipping and always moving and stuff like that. The first few weeks, my body was kind of hurting standing there.

Ross: I totally agree, Maggie. My legs, my back, I was like, “Oh my gosh. Is this retirement? This is terrible.”

Have you found activities to help replace gymnastics in your daily life?

Nichols: Something that I’ve really enjoyed is indoor cycling. It’s called CycleBar here. I’m looking into becoming, it’s called a cycle star. You’re a cycling instructor. It keeps me very active and it’s really hard so I feel accomplished after.

Ross: I’ve tried a lot of different sports because I’ve only done gymnastics since I was 3, so I never did any other sports growing up. I tried beach volleyball, tried tennis. My siblings laughed at me. I have no hand-eye coordination. I would just swing under the ball and it was so embarrassing.

But one of the sports that I’ve actually enjoyed a lot is going to the driving range and golfing. Golfing was one of the only things open in California during quarantine and my boyfriend, he enjoys being out with his friends, so he took me out a few times and I actually have found that I’m not terrible. I’m not going to say I’m good, but I’m not terrible.

Then also, I’ve tried to run sometimes, which before I could never even run a mile. No joke. Even at my top shape going to the Olympics, I couldn’t even run a mile. I think the longest I’ve ran is four miles, so I was really proud that I was able to run. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a gymnast that is.

Nichols: I’m right there with her, I can’t run either.

I actually got to golf too a little bit. My boyfriend also likes to play golf. He’s taken me out a few times too, but I’m kind of the laughingstock, I’m not good.

Ross: I think it’s very technical like gymnastics, so I think that’s what draws me in.

Nichols: Definitely. You have to have the right form in order to be able to hit the ball the right way. I think maybe that’s why we like it.

Do you think you’ll need to find something to fill that competitive void?

Nichols: I think definitely. We have that competitive blood in us just from gymnastics. With cycling, in each class they rank you from number one to last, so I’m always competing to get in the top three. I think that competitiveness will always be with us and we’ll always be trying different sports or different things in the future.

Ross: Yeah, like Maggie said, the competitiveness of gymnastics is one of the best parts. I think trying to find that outlet in hobbies or sports is something that I’m looking forward to a lot.

What has gymnastics meant to you?

Nichols: I could talk forever about gymnastics, but I think in short, gymnastics has taught me so many incredible lessons that will go into the future and help me be successful. It taught me time management, how to work hard, how to strive for something and not stop until you get there. But gymnastics has so many obstacles, struggles, whether that’s injuries or skills or competitions, there’s so many different things that teach you so many incredible lessons that I think that I can bring into the professional field. Gymnastics is such a beautiful sport and I think it’s made me the person and woman I am today.

Ross: I definitely agree, there’s so many lessons you can get out of the sport of gymnastics and for me, I think just setting a goal and doing everything you need to do to reach that goal. Also, the team aspect, I think just learning how to work together collectively and reach a goal as a team is something that’s important to bring into your future work.

What do you think is one another’s legacy in gymnastics?

Nichols: I think Kyla has so many legacies she’s leaving behind. I think Kyla was definitely an inspiration to so many gymnasts. You could always tell that she had a goal in mind and she was going to achieve it. You could tell in her gymnastics, it was near perfection, so I think that Kyla was definitely an inspiration for all the hard work and dedication that she put into the gym and you could tell that she was such a great teammate and such a positive person and someone that her teammates went to. I think that Kyla was definitely someone who left a legacy of hard work and someone who was a great person and teammate.

Ross: Aw, thank you. For Maggie, I think her legacy is bravery. Being “Athlete A,” and coming forward, I think is an inspiration to so many and to myself. I think bravery is something that’s high up there. Also, your perseverance, having so many injuries throughout your career, but always wanting to get back to the sport that you loved, I think is something that a lot of little girls can take and find inspiration in that.