Spring chasing Olympic dreams at Team Trials

By Meghan Montemurro

On the eve of one of the most important competitions in his athletic career, gymnast Justin Spring explained in simple terms the buildup to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

“This is the Olympics. We’ve been told the last four years, ‘you train to win.'”

After suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament, known commonly as the ACL, in his left knee at last year’s Visa Championships, the former Illini has been battling back in his quest to earn on a position on the U.S. Olympic team for this summer’s Olympics in Beijing. The Burke, Va., native will look to stand out among the other 14 men competing for six active and two reserve spots and a chance to represent their country on the world stage.

“We’re both really excited,” Illinois assistant coach and Spring’s personal coach Jon Valdez said on Friday. “It’s kind of the culmination of everything that Justin has been working for the last four or five years. It’s a chance for a dream to come true for Justin.”

The trials run from June 19-22 in Philadelphia, Pa. at the Wachovia Center. The men compete Thursday and Saturday at 6 p.m. and 2 p.m. CT, respectively, with NBC airing Saturday’s performances live beginning at 3:30 CT.

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The members of the Olympic team will be selected based on their performances at both the Visa Championships and the Olympic Trials.

There is a possibility two gymnasts will be named to the team Saturday night at the conclusion of the competition. According to the rules process, if an individual is in the top 2 all-around from the Visa Championships and the Olympic Trials and finishes in the top 2 in three events, the gymnast could be named to the team, Valdez said. He added, however, “that right now, nobody’s in that position.” The coach expects the selections for the Olympic team to be announced by Saturday night or Sunday afternoon at the latest.

Spring, who left Monday for Philadelphia, is coming off a solid showing at the Visa Championships in Houston, Texas this May after taking first place in the parallel bars with a two-day score of 30.900 and tying for sixth place in the vault. The parallel bar title was Spring’s third national title of his career. His other two title finishes came on the high bar in 2005 and 2007. Spring was also named to the 14-member U.S. National Team for the eighth time.

One area of concern for Spring is a day-to-day inside ankle sprain which has hindered him for the past few weeks. Due to the injury, Spring plans to sit out the floor exercise at the Olympic Trials.

However, after an unlucky string of injuries and surgeries, Spring has faced — and triumphed over – adversity.

“Being mentally strong going into the Trials is a huge part of this whole training process, cause I mean it’s part of the Olympic games; this is once every four years. This is what you train for,” Spring said. “Staying mentally strong and just positive during this whole process has been huge.

“I think coming back and dealing with these injuries and kind of training through injuries has been kind of crucial … I consider myself lucky to have just made it this far. I’m going to go out there, no strings, no holds and just do everything I possibly can and just compete the best I can.”

On Friday, Valdez said Spring had planned light training on Monday to feel and test out the equipment in Philadelphia with the main workout to prepare for the competition Tuesday. Valdez said he plans on having Spring take Wednesday to “let his nerves calm down a bit” and mentally prepare for the competition.

Spring’s Olympic potential has drawn attention to the Illinois program.

“It’s great for Illinois gymnastics,” Valdez said. “Any time we go out recruiting or something like that, it’s kind of funny, he’s trying to do his thing, coaching-wise, but he’s always got little kids coming up trying to get his autograph.”

Like Valdez, Spring is happy to bring whatever benefits he can to the University and the sport.

“To have a coach be in the running for the Olympic Games, or even possibly be on the Olympic team, draws a lot of attention to sport but specifically the University of Illinois. So I think this can only help the program,” Spring said. “I’m glad I’m helping in as many ways as I can, this being one of them.”

With difficult routines, Spring doesn’t believe they will help or hurt his potential to secure a spot and a trip to Beijing in August.

“My whole gymnastics career has kind of been seen as high risk, high reward,” Spring said. “I don’t choose it to be that way, that’s just the way I have to train. My body doesn’t let itself do, I guess, other types of gymnastics; you focus on your strengths.”