After 10 years with program, Spring wins national title

“Illinois head coach Justin Spring”:> stood off to the side, smiling and shaking his head watching his athletes go ballistic. It was Friday night and his team had just won the “NCAA men’s gymnastics Championships”:>, the first for the program in 23 years.

“This moment has been a long time waiting,” Spring added. “I have been a part of the NCAA for 10 years as an athlete, an assistant coach and as a head coach, and every time, I was on a team that had a shot at this thing. For the first time, we pulled it off. We are no longer the team that should’ve done it for the last 10 years, we are the team that did it.”

Spring was an immediate star when he entered the program as an athlete in 2002, committed to leading his team to an NCAA title. It was Spring who started the Illinois gymnastics tradition of bowing at the 1989 National Champions banner every time athletes entered the gym.

“It means you leaving everything at the door,” Spring said. “Any school problems, girlfriend problems, any drama you’re leaving that outside and right now you’re focused on training for a national championship.”

Spring was “never able to win”: a team NCAA Championship during his college career. He accomplished nearly every other possible accolade: 2006 Nissen-Emery Award, four-time NCAA event champion, 2006 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and two-time recipient of the Dike Eddleman Athlete of the Year (2004 and 2006).

Spring’s team came close to the crown in 2006, his senior season, when “Illinois lost to host Oklahoma”: by .425, but something was missing. Looking back at that meet, Spring realized what he could have done differently as a captain: motivated his team more, or called captains meetings during practice to get the athletes on


“I wish I knew then what I know now,” Spring said.

He made the Olympic team in 2008 and earned a bronze medal but returned to Champaign immediately after, focused on leading Illinois to a national title.

“He had a career we are all envious of,” senior Paul Ruggeri said. “But you knew the lack of a team title was always nagging at him, he made it clear.”

Spring climbed up the ladder from volunteer assistant coach to assistant coach to associate head coach to head coach in a four-year fast track. He was dedicated to learning about leadership and character, something he cites as crucial in building a championship team.

“I think it’s better to be a coach,” Spring said. “I’m dead serious. This team has taught me so much, to watch passion and joy and success that comes from every one of them, it’s like me winning it times 21.”

Most of the collegiate gymnastics coaches are much older than Spring. In fact, they all tried recruiting him themselves. Sometimes Spring blends in as an athlete, as he’s 28 years old.

“Being Justin Spring, I wish I was in his shoes, though I know he’s living through our shoes,” freshman C.J. Maestas said. “We’re so happy, such a young coach making right decisions throughout the year, not only that but living up to the hype. He’s the Justin


It was never much of a question for Spring to remain in Champaign and coach his alma mater. He loved the town, the people and the Illini program.

Spring enjoyed developing relationships with the athletes and living through them. He plans to take many of the important lessons he learned through this experience to his homelife when he begins raising his first child, due this summer.

“It’s exciting for me, as a soon-to-be parent,” Spring said. “I think through this, I learned what it’s like to live vicariously through younger people and I’m sure this is only a fraction of what being a dad is.”