Bo and Maddie Nickal are a Penn State power couple.
Between them, the former Penn State athletes have seven All-America honors. In 2019, Bo won his third national wrestling championship and the Hodge Trophy—wrestling’s Heisman.
Maddie was a three-time first-team All-American in track and field and a Big Ten champion in both the heptathlon and pentathlon.
They grew up more than 18 hours apart, fell in love at Penn State and, tucked in the Pennsylvania mountains, married in December 2020.
Maddie– formerly Maddie Holmberg– is from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, roughly a two-hour drive from State College. Bo was born in Colorado but grew up in Allen, Texas. Both were elite high school athletes.
At Hempfield High School, Maddie—with a smile that stretches from Pennsylvania to Texas—won four state championships in track and field and set the district record in the long jump.
At Allen High, Bo— a fun-loving man, now 26, who loves the outdoors and is making his professional MMA debut Friday night— became one of America’s best prep wrestlers, finishing with a 183-7 record (with 131 pins), three state titles and a runner-up finish.
The couple first met in a kinesiology class in 2016. Both majored in kinesiology. Maddie, now 25, was a freshman, Bo a sophomore.
But love didn’t bloom right away.
For two years, they attended the same Bible Studies group and occasionally went out with mutual friends. Meanwhile, Maddie became a first-team All-American in indoor and outdoor track, and Bo won two national championships.
A group project connected them for good.
THE PROJECT THAT BROUGHT BO AND MADDIE TOGETHER AT PENN STATE
The object was simple: students in a 400-level kinesiology course had to create a business based on their interests.
“Once we got put in that group project together,” Bo said, “she was forced to hang out with me.”
“I knew she was the one right away.”
Bo began to fall for Maddie, and others in the group noticed.
“Bo was just staring at Maddie all day and all night,” Ian Vernon, a Penn State boxer who finished national runner-up in 2019 and trained with Bo while in college, said, “it was so funny.”
The feeling became mutual. By the end of the spring semester, the two star athletes began dating. On New Year’s Day, 2020, Bo proposed, and Maddie said “yes.”
By the end of that year, they were Mr. and Mrs. Nickal.
Bo and Maddie both have plenty of athletic accolades, from which an abundance of happiness has come.
But that wedding day in central Pennsylvania brought the two a different kind of joy.
DIFFERENT SPORTS, SAME DRIVE
Before they fell in love, Bo didn’t know much about track and field.
Maddie knew a little about wrestling and appreciated Bo’s dominance.
But Bo’s love of Mixed Martial Arts— a violent sport he took up as a competitor following his graduation in 2019— at first horrified Maddie.
“This is insane,” Maddie thought while watching a fight on TV with Bo. “I cannot believe that he wants to do this. I hope that if we stay together that he changes his mind.”
With Bo having two amateur fights and pro bouts ahead, Maddie still isn’t big on the violence of MMA, and watching her husband get hit and possibly spill some blood won’t be easy.
At the same time, Maddie appreciates the art of MMA and believes in her husband’s endeavor.
“It’s not a malicious thing,” Maddie said. “It’s really just a sport, and it’s about challenging yourself. Bo’s very smart, and he sees it really as just a puzzle.”
Bo briefly competed on his middle school track and field team because his parents, Jason and Sandy, wanted him to stay active between wrestling seasons. But he didn’t know much about the sport until he got to know Maddie better.
Bo loves how, from sprints to shot put, Maddie has had to learn many skills in track.
“I thought that was so cool,” Bo said. “I was like, ‘wow, if I did track, I would want to do that.’ Because it’s like, if you do one thing all the time, it’d probably get boring. I thought it was really cool that she did a bunch of different events.”
Thanks to Maddie, Bo has gone from having barely a clue about track to someone who is “pretty on top of it.”
“I know all the events, and I even know little tidbits of technique here and there,” he said. “I’m definitely not an expert, but I enjoy it a lot.”
Maddie, who got her undergraduate degree from Penn State in 2020, is not competing in track this season. She’s focusing on finishing her master’s and internship this summer, and her long-term career in the sport is uncertain.
Neither Maddie nor Bo would have been multi-time All-Americans if they didn’t push themselves further than most are willing to go.
“They strive to be the best in whatever they are doing, and they are willing to do the work to become the best,” Maddie’s father, Rob, who played at Navy and later Penn State in the early 90s before playing eight seasons in the NFL, said. “They see it in each other, and not only do they appreciate it, but it makes them work harder.”
Bo’s father, Jason, who played college football at Chardon State and then became a high school coach in wrestling and football for 26 years, echoed that sentiment.
“Neither of them,” Jason Nickal said, “would be satisfied with mediocrity.”
In training for fights, Bo gets the same incentive from his wife that she gets from him.
“I definitely feel motivated by her,” he says. “The way she trains and all the time she puts in, it makes me want to do the same and put that into my sport and do better.”
MANY SMILES AHEAD
The class project that became the launching pad for this power couple has become something more than that. The theory of that project— creating a business— is real life now.
Last July, Bo partnered with American Top Team to open American Top Team Happy Valley, an MMA gym.
“It’s just MMA right now,” Bo said, “but we’re going to add in the strength and conditioning component, and once (Maddie is) done with her graduate degree, add in a nutrition component. So it’s kinda cool that we’re actually using that.”
Bo’s ultimate goal professionally is to be a UFC champion, and a goal he hopes to start by beating John Noland Friday.
— UFC FIGHT PASS (@UFCFightPass) May 31, 2022
With her track & field future uncertain, Maddie’s short-term goal is to finish her masters in December and become a registered dietician. Her long-term goal is to work with athletes and help “optimize their health and performance.”
Aside from their common ground in sports, faith and positive thinking have guided this power couple.
“(The marriage is) very closely guided by religion, and then it’s also guided by positivity and optimism,” Vernon, now a marine, who drove 10 hours from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, to be at Bo and Maddie’s wedding, said. “No matter what, they’ll always be picking each other up. Always in a positive mood. It doesn’t seem like they’re ever really negative towards each other. I’m sure they have their ups and downs, but it seems like their main course, the course they follow, is guided heavily by positivity.”
Even if Maddie’s days on the track are no more, and regardless of whether Bo ever has a title belt put around his waist, the couple plans on building a home, starting a family and bringing more champions into the world.
“I’d love to have athletic kids,” Bo said with a smile.
Note: This article is updated and corrected from an earlier version, which said that Bo Nickal’s Friday fight was his UFC debut. The fight was for Jorge Masvidal’s iKon Fighting Federation, not the UFC.