Confident Nichols takes star role for powerful US team

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) Maggie Nichols couldn't sleep. Not a wink. Prepping for her first world championships was becoming a heart-fluttering, anxiety-inducing Very Big Deal.

And it was bothering her roommate and best friend.

Chill, Simone Biles told Nichols. You got this.

''She was just like having problems like, `Oh, I can't do this, I can't do that,''' Biles said.

Even though Biles knew the opposite was true. Sorry, you don't make your Twitter handle ''(at)MagsGotSwags12'' if you have self-esteem issues.

Like every performer, Nichols is only truly at home when she's on stage. When the lights came on during qualifying Saturday, the 18-year-old with the ''Best! Day! Ever!'' smile looked right at home on a powerhouse team filled with a pair of Olympic gold medalists and a singular force of nature.

When the U.S. walks onto the floor at pink-coated SSE Hydro on Tuesday night in search of its third straight world title, the only American competing in all four events won't be reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas or three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman. It won't even be Biles, the two-time defending world champion who is basically LeBron James in a leotard.

It'll be Nichols, whose three difficult, controlled and still highly accessible routines during qualifying impressed national team coordinator Martha Karolyi so much that Karolyi -not exactly the touchy-feely type - decided to give Nichols the heaviest workload.

Those anxious moments that preceded the first biggest meet of her life evaporated the instant Nichols walked into the arena.

Nichols practically sprinted onto the podium for her floor exercise, her intricate bun - the one comprised of over a dozen ponytails that rises several inches off the top of her head - hairsprayed into obedience.

Over the next 90 seconds her jitters vanished into the chalky air, her score of 14.7 third best in the entire field. The impact on her confidence might have been even more valuable. Her Amanar vault lacks Biles' gravity-defying power but she makes up for it with precision, remarkable considering at 5-foot-4 keeping your limbs in line while flipping and twisting through the air ain't easy.

By the time Nichols finished her steady beam set, the U.S. was well on its way to the top score in qualifying and Nichols had shed any concerns about being an overwhelmed newcomer on a team laden with stars.

''I just wanted to have fun and do my routines like I do it in the gym and show everyone I can hit my routines and show everyone I'm a big aspect to Team USA,'' Nichols said after qualifying.

For two hours in front of the world on Tuesday night, she'll be the biggest. She can lean on Biles for guidance though, really, Nichols might not need it.

Underneath the unassuming Minnesota teenager's exterior is a toughness that's made her arguably the best gymnast in the non-Biles subdivision. Nichols may have made the all-around final at worlds if Karolyi had entered Nichols in all four events during qualifying rather than Douglas or Raisman, not that you'll find Nichols complaining. That's kind of not her thing.

This is the same girl who dislocated her left kneecap on floor during the 2014 Pan American Games but still managed to go out and complete her vault. Nichols sheepishly says the vault was purposely downgraded for safety, never mind the fact that she managed to do it at all is remarkable. She stuck it even though she ''couldn't walk'' afterward.

''I thought I was OK,'' Nichols said. ''OK, I kind of knew it was something big but I tried to convince myself it wasn't.''

The injury forced her off her feet for weeks, though she points out she didn't miss a day at the gym, focusing on her upper body and her core while doing some soul searching to figure out if all this was really worth it.

''It's a lot,'' she said. ''But I kind of realized I needed to see how far I could go.''

Unlike many of her teammates, Nichols still attends her local high school, taking classes in the morning before putting in several hours with coach Sarah Jantzi. Nichols will graduate in December, allowing her to spend the early part of 2016 gearing up for the Olympics. If she passes the test that awaits her in the finals as easily as she did qualifying, she'll build up the kind of goodwill Karolyi is sure to remember when it's time to pick the five-woman Olympic team next summer.

Nichols isn't getting ahead of herself, and she is a realist.

''I don't think anyone can beat Simone at the moment,'' Nichols said. ''She's so amazing.''

Maybe, but Biles' swagged-out BFF isn't too bad herself.

---

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.