Spring’s march to Beijing an unlikely one



By Meghan Montemurro

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks to say the least for Olympic gymnast Justin Spring.

Within a week’s time, Spring will prepare to push his body to its limit on the world’s grandest stage in a quest for Olympic glory. Those who know Spring, or at least the challenges he has endured this past year, could consider the fact that he made the Olympic team in any capacity a feat in its own. Even Spring acknowledges that earning an individual gold medal would be difficult given the events this past year.

“Going through all the injuries and stuff like that, I had a lot of goals about a year ago,” Spring said July 24. “Primarily I’m out there to do my job and represent the USA.”

That’s not to say the former Illini won’t be an asset to the Olympic squad, especially after Paul Hamm, the all-around gold medal winner at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, announced his withdrawal Monday from the Beijing Olympics due to a strained left rotator cuff and pain in his right hand which he broke on May 22. Alternate Raj Bhavsar was selected to take Hamm’s place.

“You were put on this team for a reason and now you just go out and represent,” Spring said.

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Spring is disappointed that he has had to scale back the difficulty of his routines due to the ACL tear in his left knee – as well as lingering back and ankle problems – he suffered at the 2007 Visa Championships, but he isn’t going to let that hold him back.

“I was chosen for the team, I proved myself in four back-to-back competitions, I showed consistency,” Spring said. “Every day we are balancing minor injuries, but as far as major injuries, I’m good.”

While the Burke, Va., native’s health has been a lingering concern, Illinois assistant coach and Spring’s personal coach Jon Valdez said Spring is ready to go.

“He’s healthier than he’s been in a long time which just makes gymnastics a lot more fun for Justin especially,” Valdez said. “Coming off the emotional rush of the Olympic Trials and just being named to the team and then going to two training camps between then and now … it’s just really exciting.”

Spring departed for Beijing on Wednesday after arriving in Los Angeles on Monday for workouts and to go through processing which includes an Ambassador program with his fellow U.S. Olympians to learn Chinese customs and receive his Olympic apparel. Valdez said Spring won’t have to worry about positively representing the U.S.

“He’s going to do his job as an Ambassador,” Valdez said. “He’s got a smile, he speaks well. I mean that stuff is going to take care of itself.”

The men’s gymnastics competition begins Aug. 9. The team arrived in Beijing early to train before the three-week competition begins.

Spring admitted that finally arriving to this point in his career has been an “emotional and physical rollercoaster.”

“The whole thing’s just been kind of crazy, coming back and fighting through so much stuff,” Spring said.

As if the Olympics weren’t pressured packed to begin with, the loss of Hamm places puts even more stress on each gymnast during each routine.

“You spend your whole life, mostly the last four years of it, just truly dedicated to this moment,” Spring said. “It’s going to be nerve wracking competing in front of millions and millions of people, but that’s exciting, that’s awesome. That’s what you train your whole life for.”

In Beijing, Spring will compete on all the events except pommel horse. The team will especially rely on his performances in his best events – the high bar and parallel bar. Valdez believes Spring has the skills to advance to the event finals in both, especially if he nails the dismounts.

“It’s the Olympic Games, it’s the best in the world,” Valdez said. “I think he could definitely get into event finals and once he gets in there, anything can happen.”

Spring agreed with Valdez regarding event-final aspirations and even hopes to make an appearance on the medal podium.

After Spring returns from Beijing, he won’t get much of a breather. Spring will have a four-day break before embarking on a three-month long post-Olympic tour around the country, but for now is remaining in the moment.