Feb. 19, 2004
Whether as a gymnast at the University of Illinois or looking ahead to his post-graduate career, the sky is the limit for Justin Spring.
But seeing that his dad is a former astronaut, the limit actually might extend beyond the sky.
Who would have thought that all it took for Justin Spring to become a gymnast was a front flip off the family sofa when he thought his parents weren't looking? The three-year-old was in the attic of his family home in Houston, Texas, with several pillows surrounding the floor to cushion his fall. After seeing the flip, his mother and father figured they just had another one on their hands.
But it wasn't necessarily another troublemaker they were concerned about, it just marked the completion of an all-gymnast Spring household.
Justin's father, Woody, was a gymnast at the United States Military Academy at West Point, while his mother, Debbie, was a gymnast at Arizona. His older sister Sarah finished her gymnastics eligibility at Ohio State in 2003.
"Having a father who was in the military certainly instills discipline in you and that it was exactly what gymnastics demands," says the Illinois sophomore. "I also played piano and soccer, and I was really into diving, but around the age of 12, gymnastics starting demanding too much of my time and I decided to drop everything else to focus on this."
The Spring family resided in Houston until Justin was four years old and then moved to his listed hometown of Burke, Va.
"It's not a big town, but the area surrounding it is pretty big and we're 15 minutes away from Washington D.C.," he says.
Spring attended Lake Braddock High School, where he was one of approximately 1,200 seniors in his graduating class. The school itself enrolled 6,000 students, and was neighbored by two other large high schools within 10 miles of each other.
Outside of high school, Spring spent three years on the U.S. Junior National team and won the all-around title at the John Hancock U.S. Championships in 2000.
It didn't take long for Spring to find success in Champaign either. As a freshman in 2003, he earned All-America honors by placing fourth in the floor exercise with a score of 9.287, and earning seventh in parallel bars with a score of 8.65.
"Being named All-America really summed up the year for me," he says. "I was injured for the first half of the season, but it ended up where I peaked at nationals. It was really exciting as a freshman to gain the status and represent Illinois at that level."
Midway through his sophomore season, Spring set the school record in the parallel bars (9.600) and high bar (9.800), both of which came during the same meet against Illinois-Chicago on February 14. Spring led the Illini to a school-record and NCAA-best team score of 221.575 in a win over UIC. For his efforts, Spring earned his third Big Ten Gymnast of the Week accolade of 2004, as he led the Illini to the highest team score in school history. He was also named NCAA Men's Gymnast of the Week by Inside Gymnastics Magazine for the second time in three weeks.
"I think excitement is the word being thrown around the most right now," says the top-ranked gymnast in the nation on the floor exercise this year. "I have had a fairly good season, but a consistent season, which is most important to me. I'm just focused on keeping it up through nationals."
Illinois' record-setting performance propelled the team to the No. 1 spot in the latest national rankings. The last time the school appeared at the top of the national poll was in 1989, which was the last year the Illini won the Big Ten and NCAA titles.
Spring says it didn't take much for him to be convinced that Illinois was the right fit for him. He took his full allotment of recruiting trips with Illinois being the first stop.
"You always hear about the 'save the best for last' theory, but after seeing Ohio State, Berkeley, Oklahoma and Michigan, I kept coming back and saying that they weren't as good as Illinois."
Perhaps the defining characteristics that sold Spring on Illinois were the academics and the team's unity and discipline.
Go figure that the son of a retired colonel and former astronaut was sold on discipline.
"Our team is so close. We spend every waking moment with each other because there really is no off-season in gymnastics. Typically over the summer we have workouts six of the seven days of the week. We practice in the morning and the afternoon, which really makes the team the driving force."
Spring goes on to say that the intensity in the gym is what motivates him to work harder.
"There is nothing more motivating than competing with a group of guys with the same goal. We live by the saying, 'One team one dream'."
Justin was just a one-year-old when his father was a mission specialist for the space shuttle Atlantis, which flew November 26 thru December 3, 1985. While in space, his father was responsible for launching three communications satellites and performing two extra vehicular activities (EVA) which investigated Space Station construction techniques, large structure manipulation while on the end of the remote arm, and a time and motion study for comparison between Earth training and Space performance.
After spending his first three semesters majoring in engineering however, Justin isn't sure yet if he wants to follow his father's footsteps completely and spend 165 hours in space. He does know the next few years will be important to decide what he wants to study and while currently taking general studies classes, Justin is leaning towards business and possibly advertising as the route he would like to take.
"Everyone is so fascinated with my dad being an astronaut," he says. "It's something I wanted to do until I got here and started studying engineering."
But, as Spring points out, he would like to eventually go to the Air Force or Navy and take to the sky just as his father once did.
"I think after college I'll go to officer training camp and flight school. My dad was an experimental test pilot and I have always thought that was really pretty cool."
While the youngest Spring stays ambitious about taking to the sky, he'll have to remain grounded for few more years as he continues to lead the top-ranked Illinois squad towards its first Big Ten and NCAA Championships in 15 years.