Still with a Spring in his step

By Jeff LaBelle

Justin Spring has an identity crisis.

On one hand, he’s an assistant coach for Illinois men’s gymnastics team – an authority, an enforcer; a guy who helps run practice, fills out routine sheets, and plans timetables for Illini gymnastics.

On the other hand, he’s a world-class gymnast, a possible Olympian and a friend struggling with the idea of growing up.

Talk about confusion.

Last year as a senior captain for the Illini, Spring was the talk of the gymnastics world when he won the Nissen-Emery award – gymnastic’s equivalent to the Heisman. He was a vocal leader, a guy his teammates looked up to in both victory and defeat.

Spring had such an influence on his teammates that a coaching position was tailored for him this year, allowing him access to the team gym and keeping him in close contact with career mentor Jon Valdez. Nobody wanted him to leave.

“It’s a really dynamic relationship that we’ve got, and I think part of that is we’ve both listened and developed a trust with each other over the last five years,” said Valdez, who has been an Illinois assistant coach for seven years. “He knows I want him to win a gold metal in the Olympics. In college, he understood I was trying to help win him a national championship. We were both on the same page, trying to get the exact same thing done.”

Highlighted by a flickering computer screen and obligatory paper work, this weekday morning may lack the fanfare of a jubilant crowd and the adrenaline rush Spring’s performances produce.

But while his shared office space in no way resembles a gym, it’s not hard to imagine Spring dismounting from his chair and bowing to judges upon successful completion of any task, even spreadsheets.

While in the midst of routine paperwork and two-hour afternoon workouts with Valdez, Spring quietly approaches what most gymnasts consider the epitome of their sport. Spring is in position to land a spot on the 2008 Beijing Olympic team.

His track record is stacked with Big Ten and NCAA individual honors on the parallel bars and in the all-around.

He’s a 12-time All-American, and has been named to the USA National Team three years in a row.

The Olympic Committee looks for perfection.

“Everyone that does gymnastics grows up saying, ‘I want to go to the Olympics,'” Spring said. “That happened for me when I was about nine or ten; I started looking up to the Olympians of my era – Chainey Umphrey, John Macready, John Roethlisberger – then I started realizing when I was fifteen, sixteen that I had a shot. At that point, you realistically reset your goals. Once I made the senior Olympic team about two years ago, that’s when it set in that I had a legitimate chance.”

Tough Transitions

Spring’s transition into coaching hasn’t been easy, and has turned his social world upside down.

“That was really hard,” he said. “It was one of the biggest transitions ever, basically growing up in a month. I went from being a college student, a student athlete with my guys and my team, to realizing when I came in to do interviews for this job that all of that is my past life.”

His relationships with some of his best friends haven’t been the same since.

“The guys that used to be my best friends are still, you know, my good friends. But it’s a completely different relationship for them and me. Guys are like, ‘Yo, what are you doing this weekend?’ and all I can say is, ‘My own thing.’ It’s weird, normally I’d be right there with them doing whatever they do, but all of a sudden I’m the guy who comes down on them.”

Spring bought a new house northwest of the University in a location he says is good if “you run out of milk, (because) there are about nine places you can go that are right there.”

But purchasing a new home was about more than just convenience and necessity. Spring planted the seeds for a life on his own.

“Working on my new house is fun, a blast actually, but it’s also a lot of work,” said Spring, who splits most of his weekend time between attending meets, working on his house and spending time with his girlfriend of three years. “I’m customizing it, putting some ‘TLC’ into the house with frequent trips to Lowe’s and Bed Bath & Beyond. You don’t even realize that when you move into a new house it’s just carpets and walls,” Spring said.

His house was barren, and so was his mind.

No matter how many hundreds of times Spring had walked into a gym before, there was not a more disorienting feeling than when he first entered an Illini practice with the word “coach” attached to his name.

“This sounds bad if you take it out of context, but I was a little lost in the gym,” Spring said. “Before, all I had to worry about was my own routine. Now, I’m helping with team planning, which is much more complicated – these guys have routines that are not only hard, but dangerous. I’m working on timelines for what everyone else in the gym needs to do.

The same thing happened to Valdez.

“When I was younger, I didn’t know where to go either,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the greatest coaches in the world. My background was high school gymnastics and that’s it, so I was really not very good. That’s why I coached with coaches who worked with Olympians. I think it’s made me that much better,” Valdez said.

Lean on Me

For Spring, leaning on someone has helped make him one of the country’s top gymnasts. All along, Valdez has been his support. He’s watched Spring grow from an energetic freshman who relished college life and his freedom, to a motivated, driven gymnast and friend.

“His first few years here, we knew there would be a growing period for him, because Justin enjoys life,” Valdez said. “He was good and really listened to us, but he also tried to figure out his boundaries. The difference with Justin, though, is that he did it with a smile on his face. So he got away with a lot more.”

The “quick-twitch” athlete with the high-caliber body and the knowledgeable, helpful Valdez are a team within themselves. Within the last few months, in restaurants and on the street, Valdez has been called a “mentor” on more than one occasion. He doesn’t mind it, he says, and finds that aspect of his job one of the most gratifying.

“So many times when I’m recruiting kids and talking to parents, they’re like, ‘Hey, I want you to take care of my kid,’ and I don’t mind taking that on,” Valdez said. “I’ve heard the word ‘mentor’ a lot lately, but I’m okay with that. I’m single, I don’t have any kids, so if I can help somebody grow up a little bit and achieve his goals, I’m all for that.”

It’s a familiar scene: Valdez and Spring waiting for a flight. It’s happened many times before as they traveled to locations all over the world. Australia. Europe. They talk to one another, watch a few movies and then wait for their plane to dock. Part of the reason they’re so close, Valdez says, is because of all the time they’ve spent traveling together.

Valdez remembers his recruiting trips to Virginia five years ago, where he first met Spring at his home. At that time, the Illini consistently finished seventh, eighth, or ninth in the NCAA. Naturally, they were excited to recruit a gymnast of Spring’s caliber. Since then, Spring has become one of the dominant faces of Illinois gymnastics, and last season, as a co-captain of the team, helped lead them to a second-place finish in the NCAA championships. No matter how strong Spring’s past has been, Valdez sees an even brighter future ahead.

He’s happy to be along for the ride.

“I want Justin to be an effective coach, but I don’t think it’s something he wants to do forever,” Valdez said. “Whatever he decides to do, he’s going to be good at.”