Olympian lends advice to young athletes

Former Illini and U.S. Olympian Justin Spring talks about technique with attendees of the gymnastics camp at Kenney Gym on Friday morning. Wes Anderson

Former Illini and U.S. Olympian Justin Spring talks about technique with attendees of the gymnastics camp at Kenney Gym on Friday morning. Wes Anderson

By Daniel Johnson

Although he left on Sunday night for his final preparation for competition in Beijing, Olympian Justin Spring stopped by for the final two days of the Illinois boys’ gymnastics camp.

“These are local kids and, like I said, I’m just trying to do everything I can for the program,” he said. “These kids are going to go home to their friends and say, ‘I saw Justin Spring,’ and it’s a big deal to them. Most camps around the country are paying top-dollar to bring in Olympians, but I think it’s important to give back as a coach and as an alum. It’s the least I can do.”

Spring, a Burke, Va., native recalled that Olympians were often the highlight of his camp experiences during his formative years in the sport. He was presented with a unique opportunity of attending the camp as a U.S. Olympian, something that most sports athletes wouldn’t be able to do.

“It really makes an impact on these kids’ lives, because gymnastics is such a small sport,” he said. “You have the ability to bring the guys that are at the top; you don’t really have that in most other sports. You aren’t going to bring out (Roger) Federer at some small tennis camp, that just doesn’t happen.”

Like Federer in his sport, Spring has become something of an icon in gymnastics circles lately, especially in the younger crowd of gymnasts. His outgoing personality is something that head coach Yoshi Hayasaki and others have drawn from for years, so it’s hardly a surprise that it has shown with his national exposure as of late. Even so, Spring expected some wide-eyed looks this week, which he received almost immediately on Thursday.

“The first time I came in yesterday, they were very inquisitive,” Spring said, laughing as he recalled the questioning. “It’s funny, I was just standing on the floor, and they were all just kind of circled around me. No one says anything. I think they were waiting for me to do tricks or something and I was just like, ‘What do you guys want me to do? Do you have any questions?’ And immediately, like six hands fly up.”

Spring admits he’s been busy since making the team, but he knew it would come with the territory. And after an interview, he tries to bring a bit of gravity to a situation that seems a little improbable for him. He said what he needs to say, but it comes off a little less serious when he laughs some while he says it.

“I like to think that I’m the same person that I was six months ago – I’m just an Olympian now.”