One Illini gymnast’s Olympic dream

 

 

By Meghan Montemurro

Many members of the media had written off the young, U.S. men’s gymnastics team leading up to the Olympic Games after Paul and Morgan Hamm withdrew from the squad with injuries. The remaining U.S. gymnasts became almost an afterthought. After all, none of the six gymnasts had ever competed in the Olympics – rookies on the largest international stage.

Leave it to the newcomers to prove everyone wrong.

“It’s definitely something that I didn’t expect to have coming back from the Olympics this time,” former Illini Justin Spring said Saturday of his bronze medal from the team competition. “There have been so many men’s Olympic teams that have gone and not brought back any medals.”

The Red, White and Blue didn’t need to look far when they needed a little extra juice.

Just ask Spring.

The 24-year-old gymnast found plenty of motivation perusing the Internet during the team’s downtime in the Athlete Village prior to the start of competition.

“It just started with one article, someone was just ripping into us, like, ‘Well, the Chinese men’s team are just going to dominate everything’ and then there was a small blurb at the bottom, about a paragraph long, pretty much just saying, ‘Don’t expect anything from the U.S. men, they’ll be lucky if they make it to team finals; a medal’s completely out of the question,'” Spring said. “The popular thought was that this team wasn’t even going to be in finals. Not even in finals means we’re not even in the top eight. And everyone (on the team) was just like ‘No chance.’ It was just unreal. They got us pissed.”

Spring and his teammates didn’t buy into that train of thought.

“This is the same team that went and got fourth in last year’s World Championships without Paul and Morgan, and we’re a stronger team this year,” Spring said, who competed on floor, vault, parallel bars and high bar in team finals. “Why all the sudden aren’t we going to make top eight? The team never doubted itself; we never freaked out.”

The U.S. gymnasts’ energy visibly increased throughout the finals, with a crescendo of excitement and pure joy erupting at the realization they had won bronze as chants of “USA!” resonated throughout the National Indoor Stadium. With a team final score of 275.850, the Americans held off the fourth-place Germans for bronze.

The team’s youthful demeanor on the sidelines and in front of the cameras translated into success.

“I think this is a group of guys that always believed in themselves that they were all one team and that they were all ready to go and that no matter who was on the floor that they were going to be successful,” USA Gymnastics Men’s Program Director Dennis McIntyre said.

The U.S. men’s team featured zero gymnasts who had competed in a prior Olympics.

“I think the significance of what they did was amazing. We were not able to identify any time from any country (when a team) didn’t have at least one former Olympian,” McIntyre said.

No, it wasn’t a gold medal that hung around their necks, but that didn’t diminish its value. The team’s accomplishment comes at a time when the sport is struggling to survive in the United States. Only 18 NCAA men’s gymnastics programs remain, a stark contrast from the 230 programs that existed in 1969.

“Hopefully (the bronze medal performance) will help men’s gymnastics,” said Illinois assistant coach and Spring’s personal coach, Jon Valdez. “It’s probably one of the hardest sports in the world; it’s awesome NBC switched over to the coverage. The more people that watch it, the better.”

While Spring did not qualify for any individual events, a goal he had set prior to Beijing, the Burke, Va., native was an important piece in the bronze-medal puzzle.

“Justin’s an enthusiastic guy, a very outgoing guy and he carries that exuberance onto the floor and to the team,” McIntyre said. “He keeps everyone fired up about the competition; he’s like a cheerleader on the floor.”

In team finals, all three individual scores count, increasing the pressure placed on Spring and his fellow gymnasts.

“The guys never counted themselves out, although there was tremendous pressure. Without having Paul or Morgan out there, they had to put it all on the line,” Valdez said. “I think Justin and Jonathan (Horton) really showed their leadership. Those two guys really showed up.”

Spring soared on the high bar – literally.

When Spring is at his best, as he was in team finals, his high bar routine is mesmerizing, eliciting gasps and stopping hearts on every release move. Spring capped off the physically exhausting routine by sticking the landing and moving the team one event closer to the medal podium.

“That was ridiculous,” Spring said of his high bar landing. “That was maybe the highlight of the Olympic Games for me.

“That’s the moment I spent my life dreaming about … having it be on the line for the team. I just lost it; it was awesome.”

While a medal appeared to be locked up after the horizontal bar, the U.S. men’s arch nemesis – the pommel horse – almost bucked their Olympic dreams. Following shaky routines by Kevin Tan and Raj Bhavsar on the apparatus, the bronze medal rested on Alexander “Sasha” Artemev’s difficult routine.

“It’s almost harder to sit back and watch,” Spring said. “We knew (pommel horse) was our weakest event. We struggle to get through mediocre routines.

“I trusted Sasha, but I was definitely a little nervous. But he didn’t fall off that horse, and that’s all we needed.”

And then it was over.

The pressure was finally gone, and in it’s place, an Olympic medal and a place in history.

“It was unreal,” Spring said. “The Chinese national anthem was playing, but our flag was right there and being raised in the arena. It was just a sense of pride for your team, your country; you represented all those things you hold dear and did it well, so it was really cool.”

As the Olympic experience continues to set in, Spring and his fellow USA men and women gymnasts embark on the nationwide 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars.

In the meantime, Spring has to figure out the answer to a frequently asked question: Where are you putting your Olympic medal?

“I think I’m just going to put it in my trophy case and have it kind of out because it’s more sentimental, I don’t think anyone would steal it.”

Spring paused. “But I don’t know, maybe I should hide it.”