"Sexual abuse is a topic that needs to be talked about and this story needs to be told," Maggie Nichols tells PEOPLE

By Lindsay Kimble
June 25, 2020 01:26 PM
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Maggie Nichols
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In late May, gymnast Maggie Nichols was named Big 12 Conference Female Athlete of the Year. It was, she says, the "icing on the cake to an incredible career at the University of Oklahoma and my gymnastics career as a whole."

Her success as a collegiate athlete is all the more impressive, considering her journey was almost derailed by USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar.

Nichols, now 22, was the first brave athlete to report that former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar had sexually abused her. Her story — and that of the hundreds of other young athletes assaulted by Nassar — is documented in the new Netflix film Athlete A from filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk.

"I felt comfortable opening up about my experience as part of this documentary because I felt that sharing my story could help others who have either had similar experiences and or educate those who are unaware," Nichols tells PEOPLE. "Sexual abuse is a topic that needs to be talked about and this story needs to be told."

Nichols began competing at a young age, entering junior events in 2011 then progressing to the senior level. In 2015, she earned two world championship medals — a team gold and an individual bronze in the floor exercise. That same year, she reported Nassar's abuse, which she has said happened while she was competing on the national team.

USA Gymnastics did not take immediate action in response to Nichols' claims. And soon after, she didn't make the 2016 Olympics team despite being a top contender and finisher at the Olympic trials.

In Athlete A, Nichols' mother, Gina Nichols, says, "USA Gymnastics took Maggie's Olympic dream away from her. It was just so hurtful and so painful, everything that happened."

Nichols — as an unidentified plaintiff (thus, "Athlete A") — sued USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University, where Nassar was also employed until 2016. In May 2018, Michigan State paid a $500 million settlement in response to lawsuits, with over $400 million going to the 332 victims that had then come forward — including Nichols.

The gymnast then publicly revealed the abuse in 2018. That year Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing women and girls for decades.

Netflix

Recounting it, again, for the documentary was "extremely difficult," Nichols tells PEOPLE.

"I have bad days and I have good days but it is something that seems to always cross my mind and can be a struggle on a day to day basis," she says. "It was hard to film a lot of the interviews because talking about what happened to me and so many others is extremely difficult and something I really struggle with but it was important."

She's lucky to have a support system in the many other survivors who have accused Nassar. "Knowing that I wasn’t alone and had others that I could lean on was something that inspired me every day," Nichols says.

Nassar's accusers are still fighting for answers, and this month issued a letter to the Justice Department asking that the inspector general's report on the FBI's role in the scandal be released to the public.

"There is a lot I would say to USA Gymnastics," Nichols says. "I am extremely disappointed, heartbroken, and [USAG] all failed each of us as well as your one job of keeping us all safe. Unacceptable."

USA Gymnastics said in a statement in response to the documentary that they are "deeply committed to learning from the mistakes of the past and the mishandling of the horrific abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar. In order to do that, we must listen with open hearts to Maggie Nichols' story, and the experiences of other survivors, so that we can truly understand the impact it had, and the circumstances that led to it and enabled it for too long."

"Because of the bravery of Maggie and other survivors who have come forward, there have been transformational reforms across the sport," the statement continued, in part. "Within USA Gymnastics, under an entirely new leadership team, we have implemented stronger policies and preventative measures, launched multiple educational efforts, and made sweeping organizational, leadership and personnel changes. Most importantly, we have prioritized changing the sub-culture within our community that allowed this to happen. We owe these survivors an incredible debt of gratitude for igniting these changes across the sport."

Nichols stepped away from elite gymnastics for several reasons she says, including the need for a more "positive scene" — which she found on the collegiate level.

"I felt so much more love, support, and excitement every minute of being a part of OU," she says. "From the coaches to the trainers, the athletes, the administration, and so on and so forth, I felt a new love for the sport of gymnastics and I am forever thankful I made the decision to go the collegiate route."

Now Nichols — who has one more semester left before graduation and then hopes to get a Master's degree — is looking forward while looking back.

"I hope viewers learn the importance of bringing to light sexual abuse and just how horrible this case is," she says of Athlete A. "I hope that they learn and can educate themselves around what has happened and that it unfortunately can happen to anyone at anytime. I hope it educates themselves on ways to protect themselves and those around them from sexual abuse."

Stream Athlete A on Netflix.