Long before First Lieutenant Maggie Sherrill Nicklas climbed into the F-16 fighter jet she flies for the United States Air Force, she was just a little girl who wanted to be like her grandfather. “He was my role model.”
“He was such a good man and served his country with such honor, and I wanted to be like him,” she says of the decorated Army Colonel who served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Unsurprisingly, when it came time to apply to colleges, Nicklas announced she wanted to attend a service academy. The college recruiters were already calling Colorado Academy to talk about the standout 5’11” volleyball outside hitter, including Colorado College, several Division III schools, and both the Navy and Air Force. But in the end, Nicklas knew that, above all else, she wanted to become a commissioned officer in the military.
“Playing Volleyball for the Falcons was the cherry on top for me,” says Nicklas. “I would have gone to the Air Force Academy, even if I didn’t play.”
Hard court handiwork
Nicklas was a fierce player during four years on CA’s Varsity team. She left a trail of wins and records for career kills and career aces and was named Metro League Senior of the Year, among many other accolades. She dominated with the Front Range Volleyball Club and Colorado Performance Volleyball Club, but Nicklas’s remarkable handiwork on the court told just one part of her story.
While she was the student who sat in the front row of class, took acres of notes, stayed for help time every chance she could, and turned in assignments early so her teachers could assure she was on the right track, she did not have a sky-high GPA or legions of AP classes to prop up her application. Therefore, her admission into the Academy was not a surety, admits Nicklas. She took the ACT multiple times to prove her merit. She persevered through an application process which is cumbersome, demanding, and, she says, uncommon.
“I think the college counselors were surprised at first,” says Nicklas of her desire to apply to the service academies. “It just wasn’t a typical path for a female to take, but still everyone supported me for every part of the nomination.”
In fact, when it came time to take the Candidate Fitness Assessment that is necessary for admission to the Academy—seven pull–ups, a mile run in under six minutes, and 50 push–ups, among other requirements—Nicklas turned to Coach Bob Ulrich to administer the examination.
“Coach Bob and Coach Guy Garcia and athletics in general were hugely important to me” says Nicklas. “They really taught us that we were so much more than just a GPA. They taught us the concept of ‘whole person’.” For Nicklas, playing sports at CA was proof that, in the absence of a perfect academic record, spirit and self-assuredness matter.
Such indispensable lessons, plus learning to be organized and structured, proved helpful while she forged through the tough admissions process and went on to study Business at the Academy amid countless hours practicing and traveling to volleyball games.
“Time management is core at the Academy, especially since I was juggling sports and academics,” says Nicklas. “It was incredibly challenging academically, but just like at CA, I buckled down and figured it out.”
“That work ethic is definitely something I learned during my time at CA,” she adds.
The need for speed
On most days, Nicklas can be found studying emergency procedures, flight tactics, and aircraft systems as a pilot in the 311th Fighter Squadron, known as The Sidewinders. Stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico with her husband, also an F-16 pilot, Nicklas is currently an instrument–qualified winged aviator training for combat. It’s high-intensity, demanding, and she regularly cranks out 12-hour days in the squadron. And Nicklas wouldn’t have it any other way, particularly since she’s part of such a tight-knit community of fellow male and female service members who treat her with a combination of respect and “a bit like I’m their sister.”
She points to numerous parallels between the environment at Colorado Academy and the military. “The small classes at CA really fostered mature conversations, and the teachers took so much time getting to know every student,” says Nicklas, whose call sign is “Torch.”
“I valued the close relationships that we all cultivated while we were at CA. It’s just so unique that way.” In the same way, the nature of the military—trust among airmen—is paramount, and bonds are formed through resonant experiences.
Unique too, is the path in front of Nicklas. Because she attended the Academy, she must serve 10 years of active duty. She and her husband will likely be transferred from New Mexico to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, where they’ll both continue flying the F-16 and training for missions. After that, a combat tour is likely, where Nicklas will fly her single-seat jet at speeds topping 1,000 mph.
She’s proud of the drive and tenacity she has shown during the pivotal moments in her life—from her days at CA to her blossoming military career.
“I worked my butt off, and I put in the effort.”