Jan. 16, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Nearly four years ago, I interviewed a sophomore on the Illinois men's gymnastics team primarily because he earned All-America honors in two events as a freshman. He finished fourth at the 2003 NCAA Championships in the floor exercise and seventh on the parallel bars. In addition, I read in Justin Spring's bio that he was the son of an astronaut. I thought to myself, who wouldn't want to hear some of those stories, right?
Now, to be fair to the young Illini gymnast, Spring was starting to come into his own at that time. The story on bigten.org, which can be found here, ran midway through his sophomore season and he had already earned three Big Ten Gymnast of the Week honors and set school records in the parallel bars and high bar. His Illinois squad was also ranked No. 1 in the nation.
I'm thinking this was going to be a good story. Yes, Illinois finished last at Big Tens in 2003, but here's a kid who looks like he's going to be a decent gymnast and has aspirations of following in his dad's footsteps after college.
Last night, Spring and I reunited in a 30-minute phone conversation. We reminisced about his time at Illinois while he was busy packing his bags.
Today he left for camp.
Space camp, you ask? Nope.
This "decent" gymnast turned out to be a 12-time All-American, four-time national champion and the nation's top gymnast as a senior, and was packing his bags for USA Gymnastics camp with aspirations of becoming an Olympic gold medalist this summer in Beijing.
Just two months following the initial story, Spring captured the 2004 Big Ten floor exercise title and claimed the national championship in the high bar.
"That started it all off for me," said Spring. "The time between my freshman and sophomore years was night and day. I improved so much over that summer and the same team that finished last at Big Tens my freshman year came back and won Big Tens when I was a sophomore."
Thanks for the heads up.
All kidding aside, Spring kept the momentum going over his final two years, which ultimately peaked the interest of representatives at USA Gymnastics.
As a junior, Spring lost out on a second high bar national championship by one-tenth of a point, but earned his first NCAA title on the parallel bars. Spring said it was a defining moment in his career because it showed others, including USA Gymnastics, that he was not the typical one-event collegiate specialist. He proved it once again as a senior, winning his second national championship in both the high bar and parallel bars, while helping his team fall just shy of a team title. Illinois finished just one point behind Oklahoma for the 2006 NCAA crown.
"That was brutal," Spring said. "That was by far the biggest build up of emotion I have ever had. We wanted it so bad. I would trade all four of my individual titles for one team title because there is nothing more special than being able to share that with your team."
Prior to the NCAA Championships, Spring also claimed the parallel bars and all-around titles at the Big Ten meet and was named the conference's Gymnast of the Year as well. That however was not the only award bestowed upon him that season as he was also selected as the 2006 Nissen-Emery Award winner, given annually to the nation's top gymnast. But as Spring notes, that particular honor is not just awarded to the person with the highest scores. It is voted on by coaches and judges in the gymnastics community and primarily based on merit.
"That award is more about the character of an individual," he said. "The winner is not only a great athlete, but a great person as well. Gymnastics is a small sport and it was so meaningful to be honored like that from the people that know you."
Spring was also honored twice with the school's Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year award in 2005 and 2006.
"That was unbelievable," he said. "Our basketball team at that time went to the Final Four and as small as the sport of gymnastics is, I guess the voters felt that national championships don't come around very often and that I deserved it. It was really cool to be a part of a smaller sport and receive that recognition."
During the latter stages of his stint at Illinois, Spring's gymnastics career began to flourish internationally as well.
In 2005, Spring became the first Illini to ever win a U.S. National title, and took home a silver medal in the event at the 2005 American Cup behind Olympic champion Paul Hamm. But both new and old injuries would soon surface and put a damper on Spring's USA Gymnastics career at the worst of times.
As a result of the intense training prior to his sophomore season, Spring overused his body and following the 2005 World Championships, it was deemed that he had ligament tears in his shoulder. Spring put off surgery until he completed his junior season at Illinois and the 2006 World Championships. Ironically, it was a reoccurring ankle injury that prevented Spring from competing in the event. Originally he came to Illinois with chipped bone fragments in his ankle, but felt that surgery had repaired it back to strength.
Once his ankle and shoulder had received the proper treatment, Spring was back to form and captured the gold medal on the parallel bars in July at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was the United States' first gold medal at the Games in 16 years.
"That was my first international team competition and was a huge event for me," he said. "It was sanctioned by the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) and I scored the four highest scores in all four events for the team. I felt like USA Gymnastics needed to see I could hit my routines when I needed to in a team competition. Olympic teams are not made, they are selected."
Which is why competing at a high level and staying healthy is so important to Spring, who is currently in his second season as an assistant coach at Illinois.
He followed the 2007 Pan Am Games with a silver in the floor exercise and a gold on the high bar at the VISA Championships in August. His efforts earned him a spot on the 2007 World Championships team, but unfortunately Spring tore the ACL in his knee during a pass at the vault at the VISA Championships, which kept him sidelined for his second-straight World competitions.
"The last four years with the Senior National team have been great, but I'm sick of being the kid who 'if he could just stayed healthy, he could do some good things.'"
Spring knows the time is now. His ticket to Beijing lies solely in the hands of judges and representatives of USA Gymnastics, who will evaluate his performances in the upcoming VISA Championships in May and the Olympic Trials in June. Each of those competitions count 50 percent toward the selection process. Of the hundreds of athletes in USA Gymnastics, only 14 are selected.
Spring is just now able to sprint and do tumbling exercises off his rehabilitated knee. He has hopes of returning to active duty at the 2008 American Cup in March or possibly sooner at the Winter Cup Challenge in February.
The toughest thing for Spring has had to adapt to is training mostly by himself with his coach Jon Valdez. In our 2004 interview, Spring said, "There was nothing more motivating than competing with a group of guys with the same goal." And while there is still some truth to that saying, Spring notes that the one thing he misses the most about college is practicing with his teammates and pushing each other to reach their potential.
"(Training with USA Gymnastics) is very different because you are not training with the team," he said. "We will have camps and get together once every month, but you are on your own when it comes to training."
That in itself adds a great deal of stress and responsibility to Spring, who points out that "gymnastics becomes popular once every four years.
"The Olympics is it for this sport and this is what I have been training for my entire life."
As for a future career in aviation or a trip to space?
Right now he's busy.
"I'm just trying to do some great things in my own little way," he said.
Good for you, Justin.
We'll be sure to check back in another four years when you are preparing for London in 2012.
To follow Justin Spring's road to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, check out his page on fightingillini.com by clicking here.