University-linked Olympians look to cash


Maggie Nichols only laughs when asked if she plans to ask Under Armor where her check is.

“I should, no! Said the retired two-time world championship medalist and two-time NCAA all-around champion.

Nichols jokes. Well, most of the time. She didn’t complain when the sportswear giant approached her in 2016 to appear in an ad that also featured Madison Kocian and MyKayla Skinner.

Although they are elite, top-level gymnasts with world championship gold medals on their resumes, they were amateurs at the time the spot was filmed. Taking money would have technically made them professionals and jeopardized the university scholarships that awaited them once the 2016 Olympic cycle is over.

So they hung around. They were treated like movie stars for a few days. And they didn’t get a dime. It was a good exhibition. It was a lot of fun. Looking back, however, Nichols isn’t sure this was a good move.

“It’s upsetting because there was a lot of money at stake,” she said. “We made sure everything was going well with the NCAA. We were told that we could do it if we weren’t paid, if we weren’t given any clothes.

So they didn’t. And while the 23-year-old has no regrets about her decision to go to school after not being selected for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, the NCAA’s decision this week to allow the college athletes to take advantage of their name, image and likeness left her trembling. a little head.

“Madison and I were talking a little earlier (this week) about how we wished it had gone earlier, thinking about the assumptions, the opportunities that we had to pass on because of the rules,” said Nichols, who has retired from gymnastics a year ago and is now in graduate school in Oklahoma. “It stinks a bit that it was successful and we missed it.”

Nichols’ experience symbolized the decades-long push-pull for high-performance teenage athletes in Olympic sports, particularly in women’s gymnastics, where many (but certainly not all) elite careers peak before their 20th birthday. . The NCAA allows Olympians to collect bonuses from the USOPC for winning medals while maintaining college eligibility, but the vast majority of earning opportunities for world-class American gymnasts do not come on the court. competition but through mentions.

University of Pittsburgh athletic director Heather Lyke never quite understood the logic, calling the old policy of forcing Olympians to choose at such a young age “fundamentally wrong.”

“I don’t think we should ever be in a position where a student-athlete chooses to go to college and give up what he’s entitled to earn that way,” Lyke said.

While that’s a no-brainer for reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles – who verbally pledged to UCLA before choosing to go pro in 2015 around the time she won her third world title – for Nichols and many more others who do not reach the call status crossover that Biles has achieved, it would have been a calculated risk.

Nichols and her family even did a cost analysis, setting a certain income threshold that she would have to cross to make the sacrifice of her purse worth it. Ultimately, Nichols chose to remain an amateur. It was the right decision at the time, one that recently named Olympians Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and Grace McCallum won’t have to make.

Lee, 18, who finished second behind Biles at the US Olympic Trials, remains attached to Auburn. That hasn’t stopped Lee and her family from having conversations about what might be in store for her if she returns from Japan with a handful of medals hidden in her luggage.

The Lees are hardly the only ones having these discussions. This is one of the reasons Constable Sheryl Shade’s phone started ringing the second the new legislation took effect. Shade, whose client list includes two-time Olympic medalist gymnast Laurie Hernandez, is busy trying to sift through the details. This is not an easy task given that there is no uniform rule and what is legal and what is not varies from state to state.

Shade believes there is “no cap” on college-linked US Olympians’ earning potential, especially in women’s gymnastics, where ratings for NCAA championships have skyrocketed . They don’t even have to become Olympians to reach a large audience. LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, for example, has over a million Instagram followers.

Trending on TikTok is one thing. To stand on the podium with a medal around your neck while the national anthem plays in front of tens of millions of Americans is quite another. That’s why Shade isn’t sure the pro vs. college debate is dead.

Maximizing earning potential means doing more than just posting ads on social media. It’s attending sponsor events. It’s traveling for the shootings. He makes media hits.

“How much time do they have?” Shade said. “They still have their homework. They still have their sport. They still have the same responsibilities they always had.

However, athletes are not the only ones who have to adapt. UCLA’s women’s gymnastics program is one of the most prestigious in the country. The squad roster is filled with former Olympians like Kocian and Kyla Ross, and elites like Margzetta Frazier and Katelyn Ohashi, who have found happiness and a strong social media follower while competing for the Bruins.

Having at least one – or in some cases more than one – the Bruins’ ground routine gone viral has become an annual rite of the start of the NCAA competitive season. UCLA coach Chris Waller knows his athletes will be inundated with offers. Expect some trial and error along the way.

“There’s going to be a huge learning curve, and I think what we know for a lot of college athletes, by the time they graduate from college, they’ll become entrepreneurs,” Waller said.

One of Waller’s new athletes is already.

Chiles, the 20-year-old whose top-flight career seemed to be winding down before moving to Texas in 2019 to train alongside Biles, already has her own clothing line. Scan the website and you’ll see the Chiles sisters modeling hoodies and sweatshirts.

The new NIL rules mean that at one point you can see Chiles swinging his own equipment. She couldn’t before due to the complex NCAA rules, rules that said it was okay for student-athletes to create their product as long as they didn’t use their face to help sell it.

Those days are over. Not just for Chileans. But for all the other teenage Olympic hopefuls too. A month ago at the Nationals, the lobby of Dickie’s Arena in Fort Worth, Texas featured a poster showing Chilis wearing GK Elite leotards. She was not allowed to seek compensation at the time. It is now, which will not be a compromise for GK Elite Commercial Director Matt Cowan, who stressed that the company intends to help “empower the athletes.”

GK is not the only one. Nichols spent years being forced to say no when approached by brands during her competitive career. Now she can finally say yes.

“I spent a lot of time deciding whether to turn pro or go to college,” Nichols said. “I’m looking back now, it would have been great if I could have done both.”

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