Feb. 21, 2010
By Larry Watts
The sensei knew best. It wasn't a matter of being wise, just a matter of keeping his own sanity.
"I basically got kicked out of karate," Ohio State redshirt sophomore Steven Spencer says of his brief experience in the martial arts when he was 5 years old. "The sensei said I was dancing around too much so he told my mother it would be best to try me in something else.
"I was coming to class and trying to do all these rolls, flips and fancy moves while the sensei was trying to keep it plain and simple. He was more interested in teaching me discipline. I guess I had a little too much energy for him."
So Spencer's mother enrolled him in a gymnastics class. And he fought it.
"I didn't want to go that first time," he says, "but I wound up liking it and never wanted to leave the gym."
By the age of 15, he was a member of the U.S. Junior National team and he took second on parallel bars and third on high bar at the Junior Olympic Nationals. One year later, the Pleasanton, Calif. native won the state pommel horse and parallel bars titles. In 2004, he was the Region I pommel horse and parallel bars champion and then he took bronze on the pommel horse at the 2006 Junior Olympic Nationals.
But it would be nearly three years until Spencer would compete again on a big gymnastics stage. After graduating from high school in 2005, he immediately enrolled in summer classes at California-Berkley. However, he dropped out before the end of the first semester.
"I wasn't very interested in anything to do with school and I didn't really know what I wanted to do with gymnastics," he says. "My parents had always stressed education and my dad joked with me, telling me if I didn't do good in school, I was going to become a jockey."
While growing up, Spencer did have visions of following his father's footsteps and become a professional jockey. His parents met at the racetrack, where she used to warm up horses early in the morning.
"I grew up around horses," the 5-foot-3 Spencer says. "For about 15 years, my father raced all over the country and in Canada. I earned how to ride and my sister used to ride and participate in shows."
Then one day his sister took a spill from a horse and wound up in a full body cast for over a month. Throw in the fact he had already seen his father suffer numerous broken bones and a few surgeries, Spencer began to change his ambition.
"When my sister fell, that kind of deterred both of us from going around horses," he says. "Falling from a horse going 45 mph and then getting trampled can be pretty tough. We used to own some horses, but between constantly taking both my sister and I to gymnastics, my mom just didn't have enough time for the horses, so we eventually sold them."
After dropping out of California-Berkley, Spencer spent nearly two years living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he basically fell out of sight from the gymnastics world.
"After awhile, they told me I was doing good and I needed to be in college, so I started checking out schools," he says.
Spencer's search focused on the top schools in the Big Ten. In addition to Ohio State, he was recruited by Penn State, Minnesota and Illinois. (Penn State assistant) Kevin Tan had trained at his same club in California.
"I knew I wasn't going to stay locally because if I made this move, I wanted to make sure I committed myself," Spencer says. "There are a lot of good schools and coaches in the Big Ten.
"What it came down to was the training environment at Ohio State and the way (head coach) Miles Avery recruited me. He stayed in constant contact with my parents and was upfront and very respectful to them. He had confidence in me whereas some coaches were a little shaky because I had withdrawn from Berkley. Miles believed in me and decided to take a chance, and I wanted to make him proud."
The only problem was Spencer would have to sit out the 2007-08 season because of his previous enrollment at Berkley.
"It was tough to sit out, but it made me hungrier to prove myself," he says. "My teammates were competing and going away to meets. I had to find my own way to meets, usually through alumni, and sit in the stands and watch them. The only contribution I could make was through support."
Last year was mostly a matter of shaking loose the cobwebs, according to Spencer. Not only had it been a couple of years since he had actually competed, but a shoulder injury two years prior to that had knocked him out of peak form.
"You're talking about maybe four years since I had been at my best," he says. "It was great to be back, but there were some rough moments."
One of the roughest was at the Big Ten Championships, where Spencer didn't even place in the top eight on the pommel horse.
"I had a really rough day," he says. "But with my dad being a former professional athlete and my teammates' support, I was getting a lot of good advice. Basically, they just told me I had to brush it off and have a short memory because I needed to focus on the NCAA Championships."
Spencer bounced back in a big way. After taking third on the horse at the NCAA Qualifier, his routine on the first day of the NCAA team competition qualified Ohio State for the Super Six.
"I was the last one up for our team on the last event and I had to hit my routine to get us into the finals for the first time in a couple of years," he says. "There was a lot riding on me and I love being in that position. I hit my set and we went to the finals (eventually finishing sixth)."
But Spencer wasn't done yet. Qualifying for the individual finals for the pommel horse, he came back on the third night to hit a program-best 15.475 to take runner-up honors and earn All-America recognition. His final score was .1 of point shy of Illinois' Daniel Ribeiro and bettered Buckeye teammate Ty Echard by .025.
"Three great days, but my biggest thrill was hitting that routine to get my team into the finals," he says. "To break that barrier for the team meant our program is back on its feet and we can show people what a big power can do.
"I had no idea during club gymnastics what it was like to compete for a team. But I figured out what it meant to work with a team and how to draw your strength from your teammates. To go up on that podium with Ty at the end was really something and I think it's made me even better to know I have a team behind me.
"Last year was quite a rollercoaster for me," he added. "That last night was very emotional. Because it was the event finals, only one person goes at a time, so everyone in that arena, including my family and teammates, was focused on me."
Not only did Spencer prove he was back in the gymnastics world, but his academics took a big turn for the better during the course of the year. And he owes that to a doctor finally discovering he was dealing with attention deficit disorder (ADD).
"My grades had been rocky in high school and I could never figure out why," he says. "Then I was having problems at Ohio State. I was having a lot of trouble focusing on things. There were a couple of times when I walked into class thinking it was going to be a normal day and it would be finals. I couldn't believe I had forgotten about that and not studied for them.
"I finally went to a doctor and that's when I got diagnosed with ADD. He prescribed some medicine and things started to change immediately. My life is so much more organized now. I got a 3.6 GPA the last quarter of my sophomore year and I had a 3.56 this past fall quarter."
That visit to the doctor at Ohio State wasn't the first time Spencer had dealt with a psychologist. During his younger days as a club gymnast, he had basically developed a fear of flying on the high bar, so he started routine visits with a sports psychologist.
"I was dead last on high bar one year at the Junior championship, so I ended up seeing a sports psychologist," he says. "I got more confidence and took third on the high bar the following year. Those visits helped me tremendously because he taught me different techniques to use in my approach."
Those visits with a sports psychologist have peaked Spencer's interest and he intends to head into the same field.
"Those techniques he taught me really do work and have helped me improve both my mindset and gymnastics," he says. "At first, I was just interested in psychology. Now that I realize how much those techniques have helped me has convinced me to help other athletes with their minds while performing."
But before he starts thinking about a business career, there is a little matter of three more years of gymnastics at Ohio State to think about.
"Everything is back on track with both my mind and body," the 22-year-old says. "I want to add another event or two to my competition schedule, and then get a crack at the World Championships and possibly the Olympic team in 2012. I have high goals for international competition and I'm going to keep working on those as I continue to get the best out of my career at Ohio State.
"Right now, I feel like I'm in the best shape both mentally and physically, but I probably won't hit my physical peak until I'm around 24 or 25. I have a late-developing body, so I think everything is coming together at the right time. I believe I can get much better over the next few years."