Illinois Alum Spring’s journey from athlete to coach


The Daily Illini

Daryl Quitalig The Daily Illini Illinois head coach Justin Spring, right, watches floor routine during the Gym Jam at the Huff Hall on Friday, March 2, 2012.

By James Boyd, Staff writer

With four NCAA event titles, three Big Ten titles and an Olympic bronze medal on his résumé, Illinois men’s gymnastics head coach Justin Spring could have hung it up and retired as one of the most decorated Illinois gymnast of all-time.

He didn’t.

“I really looked up to him,” freshman Alex Diab said. “Not only was he an awesome college gymnast, but he also went on to compete for USA in 2008 as a national team member.”

Instead of calling it quits, and simply being someone for young gymnasts like Diab to admire, the former Big Ten Gymnast of the Year returned to his alma mater and traded in his orange and blue singlet for dress pants and  a sport coat.

The 12-time All-American proved he was more than just an alum getting a free pass. Spring already showed he could be a great individual gymnast, and in due time he would show that he could coach at a high level as well.

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Serving as an assistant coach for the Illini from 2006-2009, and an associate head coach in the following year. After the 2010 season, Spring was named head coach of the men’s gymnastics team — a program that had won nine NCAA titles and 21 Big Ten championships.

Upholding the Illini’s high standard for men’s gymnastics, the former All-Big Ten athlete didn’t miss a
beat when he took hold of the reins. In his first three years as head coach, Spring led his squad to three consecutive Big Ten Championships and one NCAA crown in 2012.

Despite the success, Spring said it was not as easy as it looked on paper. He still struggled during that
span to accept that he wouldn’t be the one out there competing.

“That was a really tough and long transition coming from athlete to your captain, and senior-athlete to being a coach,” Spring said. “You kind of have to redefine how you lead. No matter how buddy-buddy a coach can be, you’re never going to be one of them.”

Having spent so much time looking at things through the eyes of an athlete, Spring’s job is a lot more clear these days. His approach to competition may not be the same as it was five or 10 years ago, but his ultimate goal remains the same — bring yet another NCAA championship back to Champaign.

Young Illini gymnasts have shown poise throughout 2015-2016 season

Sophomore Brandon Ngaio doesn’t turn 18 until June 20. 

Although other gymnasts on the Illinois men’s gymnastics team aren’t quite as young as Ngai, who skipped two grades, 10 other Illini join him as an underclassman on the team — four of which are freshmen.

Before any competitions took place this year, Spring referred to his first-year athletes as “wildcards.” They can either come out and perform well, or freeze up because the moment is too big, Spring said.

For a squad that is currently ranked sixth in the country and averaging 432.415 points per competition, Spring’s precautionary sentiments about those “wildcards” seem to have fallen to the wayside, with freshmen and sophomores leading the way for the Illini as they wrap up the 2015-2016 season.

Freshman Alex Diab became the Big Ten still rings champion after performing well throughout his first collegiate campaign, and after struggling early on in his first year, freshman Johnny Jacobson has really come into his own as well — receiving All-Big Ten honors alongside Diab.

“Johnny had a career-high on parallel bars in the event finals,” Spring said. “And that’s good. You want to see guys rising to the occasion, under these most stressful situations. That means they can handle the pressure.”

Ngai has also had an outstanding season in just his second year with the Illini. Aside from two instances where the 17-year-old dismounted prematurely during his routines, Ngai has run the table during every other pommel horse outing this year, either winning outright or tying for the event title.

There are only three seniors currently on the Illinois roster. With a small amount of turnover coming in the offseason, Spring only expects his underclassmen’s confidence and ability to grow further during the home stretch of the season, especially after many of them performed well in a close loss to Ohio State at the Big Ten Championships.

“After you get second, you certainly want to come out and finish strong,” Spring said. “(You want) to represent the program, represent the team, represent the “I” on your chest in the best way possible. They’re hungry.”

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