Former Illini Spring tears ACL

Justin Spring won the all-around title and three event titles against UIC in this March 12, 2005 file photo. Spring, who was slated to join Team USA for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is currently waiting to have his torn right ACL operated on following an aw Erica Magda

Justin Spring won the all-around title and three event titles against UIC in this March 12, 2005 file photo. Spring, who was slated to join Team USA for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is currently waiting to have his torn right ACL operated on following an aw Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

After a horrendous fall at the Visa Championships last Saturday, University graduate Justin Spring and his trainer are keeping a watchful eye on his injured knee and hoping for the best.

MRIs revealed the gymnast tore his right ACL over the weekend, but decisions on whether to operate aren’t a matter of “if” but rather “when” the surgeon can fit him in. Spring is ahead of schedule and is set to undergo what he considers to be a routine procedure.

“The injury happened five days ago, and I’m already way ahead of schedule,” Spring said. “My body’s ready and we would have (operated) today, but they couldn’t fit me in. I absolutely have to get surgery, though. Gymnasts need their ACLs.”

Spring sustained the injury in San Jose, Calif., where one awkward vault landing left him writhing in pain on the mats of the HP Pavilion. Spring was attempting the suke triple twist when things went awry. On his vault landing, Spring’s knee buckled, snapping his ACL. His frustrated body fell to the ground.

“It’s all over YouTube,” Spring said. “We trained it and we were ready. But my right leg just didn’t finish that last bit of twist. I straight-legged it and popped my ACL. That’s the thing about the ACL, it only takes a little.”

Hours earlier, the booming Illinois gymnast, a 2006 graduate, had secured the Championships title for top high bar performance with a two-routine score of 29.950. He had all but assured his name to be among the top considered for Team USA’s World roster and the ultimate in his set of goals – an Olympic appearance in the upcoming 2008 summer games. In Spring’s own words, he was a “shoo-in” before the injury.

“I’ve burned out my cell phone battery talking to doctors, some of the top orthopedic surgeons out there,” said Jon Valdez, Spring’s trainer and assistant coach with Illinois’ men’s gymnastics team. “Right now the goal is to find the best procedures to get him back. Every doctor we’ve talked to says it’s not going to be a problem.”

After the operation, to be completed in the upcoming days, the window of recovery on Spring’s knee will stand at four to 10 months.

Spring will still be revered as one of the top gymnasts in the country after his rehab, but with the 2008 Beijing Olympic trials only nine months away, a slow recovery would certainly hinder his ability to make Team USA’s roster. He not only will have to rehabilitate the knee, but Spring will need to regain Olympic-caliber strength in the rest of his body as well. The Beijing Summer Olympics are in 11 months.

“This is going to be the comeback story,” Spring said. “To not only get back into shape but get to that level of fitness, it’s going to be tough. But I’m going to be ready.”

At the Pan Am games in mid-July, all four of Spring’s routines landed him the top U.S. score, including a parallel bar routine that earned him a gold medal. He helped the U.S. recover from an 11-point deficit early in the competition to finish third.

To prepare for that meet, Spring made recoveries from shoulder and knee injuries that forced him out of prior competitions. Spring, the 2006 collegiate gymnast of the year and winner of the Nissen-Emery award, was rebooting his hopes of international superstardom after three surgeries in the span of a few months.

This will be his fourth in one year.

“We’re all looking at the silver linings right now,” Valdez said. “At least he’ll be great on pommel horse and rings next year.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he added. “It was a weird landing. We’re both 100 percent committed and he’s an amazing kid. Justin’s spirits are amazingly high.”

Daily workouts with Valdez last year resulted in Spring’s reworked routines with some of the most difficult point values in the world. However, with greater point values came greater risk. But in Spring’s defense, that’s what the U.S. will need come time for international competition.

“I train to do the bigger stuff that’s worth more – that’s what this country needs,” he said. “It’s going to take awhile to bounce back from this. But I’m even more motivated than I was before.”