As his top-ranked Illini go for broke at the NCAA men's gymnastics Championships this weekend, read up on Justin Spring’s growth from his early days at the University of Illinois… to a Bronze medal with the USA Olympic team in 2008… to the present. And see how the people along the way, especially those behind the scenes, helped make it all happen.
Tori Tanney doesn’t remember the first time she met him. It could have been at a party or on the street— maybe a glance and short “hi” on the way to a punch bowl or something— but the little moment years later is too buried to recall.
“Is that bad?” she asks, laughing.
Justin Spring, then front-man for the Illinois gymnastics team, and Tanney were sophomores then in 2003, still new at the University of Illinois. They had spent the night out with different people: her with three other gymnasts at a semi-formal, him at a dance with a friend. But at the end of the night, by coincidence almost, they found themselves at the big, blue Illinois gymnastics house on Fifth and Healey. That’s when she first noticed him.
“When I first talked to him, he wasn’t cocky or arrogant or anything, just very straightforward. ‘This is how I feel, this is what I’m thinking. So what do you feel, what are you thinking?’” Tanney said. “And that kind of threw me off because I was a very guarded person.”
On a couch, the two talked for hours before he eventually had to drive her home. For Spring, the evening began the most meaningful pursuit of his life, next to winning an NCAA Championship and next to making an Olympic team. To do either, he would need Tanney. He would need that support. She would mature him. And when he needed it most, through countless surgeries and setbacks, he’d be lucky enough to have her.
“So, one of the first times that we talked, he said, ‘I like you, you know? What’s going on with us?’” Tanney remembers. “I was like ‘Whoa, what?’ I really liked him and our personalities just clicked really well. I knew right away there was nothing fake about him. He was so real.”
Spring was highly-recruited out of his hometown Burke, Virginia, a city of about sixty thousand people on the outskirts of Washington DC. Word gets around in gymnastics circles about high schoolers as good as he was. He was a high-flying, acrobatic gymnast who even compared himself to X-games athletes. By his junior year, colleges around the country were taking notice. The first school to contact him, and the first to get him to visit, was Illinois.
“I knew this guy had something,” former Illinois head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “It was a unique talent that he possessed at that time, when he was just a young kid. He was extremely good at swinging skills— parallel and high bar— and I said to my assistants, ‘We have to go get him. We need him.’ That’s how it started.”
Before he knew it, Spring was fist-deep in crab sushi at Champaign’s Kamakura and Hayasaki was showing him the town.
“I opened my big mouth and said, ‘I’ll try anything once,’” Spring said. “The next thing I know I have a soft-shell crab roll in front of me, with the arms and legs sticking out. I’m like, ‘Wow’ because I’m eating sushi, this gnarly roll that I’d never seen before. (Hayasaki) said, ‘You said you were going to eat it.’ So I dove in.”
Spring chose Illinois. Hayasaki helped make his decision an easy one. The veteran Illinois coach would come to influence Spring in other ways, as well. In his first few years at Illinois, especially, Spring would learn to think through situations more, even if he was absolutely sure his gut instinct was the right one. The ever-energetic and youthful Spring would take a note from the calming Hayasaki.
“That’s one thing a lot of freshmen will have in common—they’ll be pretty impulsive,” Spring said. “Yoshi’s wisdom was huge. He was super patient with me. I think that’s a big attribute I was lacking, and I think a lot of that rubbed off on me.”
The first day of practice freshman year, Spring and fellow freshman Adam Pummer walked into the gym and unloaded on the mats and bars together.
“I just remember getting such a reaction from the other guys. Like, ‘We got to calm this kid down, it’s the first day of practice,’” Spring said. “You’re not supposed to be doing anything too crazy or unfamiliar that early, but the thing was, I wasn’t doing anything too crazy in my head. To them I was throwing half-routines, the craziest stuff.
“Everyone’s eyes kind of opened wide and they were thinking ‘These kids are going to be good.’ They’re going to do things. Four years later we did quite a bit. But that was a fun first day.”
They weren’t trying to show everyone else up. They were trying to establish themselves in a new place, a familiar and yet completely unique world. There were new people to impress, new goals to set. Having the push of the other was like a constant supply of fuel to the fire.
Pummer knew Spring from the east coast. The two had competed against and with each other at various high school events and came to appreciate their similarities. They went on recruiting trips together and hit it off rather quickly before deciding to room together their freshman year at Illinois. It bonded them.
“They both were very similar personality-wise,” Tanney said. “Both competitive, very talented. I was good friends with them right away. I was almost better friends with Adam at first. People are just drawn to them because of their personalities.”
Pummer was full of energy and Spring could relate. The two were famous for enjoying themselves, enjoying friends, and making sure everyone was having fun whenever they were part of a larger crowd. Their strengths as a duo— they fed off each other’s eagerness and drive— filtered into Kenney Gym, the gymnastics team’s training facility, and into weekly competition.
The two never did win an NCAA Championship together, though. A second-place finish was as close as they came despite too many individual accolades to fully mention. Spring was a 12-time All-American, NCAA high bar and parallel bar champion twice, and a Nissen-Emery Award winner, recognized as the greatest college gymnast in the country his senior year in 2006. Pummer was an All-American several times as well. They were two of the Big Ten’s best. But falling to Oklahoma by less than half a point in the NCAA Championships their senior seasons, as a team coming so close, left Spring scratching off one career goal for the wrong reasons.
“He never won the big one. That’s one thing I think he regrets the most because he tells us every day that he does. He instills in us not to forget that you can be the most talented team in the country, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not there that day, if you’re not making those extra sacrifices.”
University of Illinois senior co-captain
But they still had each other. The team was still together, at least for a time. Following the loss, Spring, Pummer, and the other two seniors on that team, Ted “Teddy” Brown and Anthony Russo, were together long enough to at least talk their way through it.
“Every time we get together with everybody we always talk about it and swear against Oklahoma,” Pummer said. “We all believe that before the meet started, we said that if we all hit our routines that nobody could beat us. We all felt we did a really good job doing that, but maybe there was a little bias. Maybe Oklahoma did beat us a little bit here and there, but I think we were the better team on the floor that day. It’s tough to think about.”
With their college gymnastics behind them, it was time for Spring and Pummer to make a choice. With Brown and Russo gone, having moved on to other jobs and careers, the two were faced with a question: Do they attempt to make an Olympic team? Do they make the sacrifice, accept the pain, and test themselves? For Pummer, the answer was eventually “no”— he trained for a short while before pulling out and heading north. For Spring, though, his was “yes” and he took a volunteer staff position with the team to maintain access to the gym and to coaches.
But Spring was isolated in the gym and in his training routine. He had coaches, but no teammates. This was his goal, and it seemed to be his alone. He still had Tanney, thankfully, and he needed her then more than ever.
The days were long and frustrating. Spring struggled with aches and pains, but the change in routine at the gym was a different kind of hurdle. Spring was not only training for his own Olympic shot, he was a volunteer coach, too. He was torn mentally, tearing physically, and struggling to keep going.
“I’d come back from my coaching and be pissed off because I had a rough practice, and mad at my own coach for pushing me too far if he didn’t understand me, and I’d come back and Tori empathized,” Spring said. “She’d understand because she saw the frustration I went through. I actually have a journal I kept because the national team coordinator had us keep one. I look at some of the things I wrote. I was very frustrated and broken down for months.”
In his journal, he’d write the date. Then the words would seem to pour out: Had a rough practice again today. My shoulder is continually acting up. I find it so hard to stay motivated and continue to push through routines. My coach is trying to be supportive but he’s as frustrated as I am because we’re not getting the training in that we need. Every day you can just see that frustration build and build.
The date, and then: I had a meltdown today. I exploded on my coach and he did the same.
“I was a mess,” Spring said. “I was so beat up and so angry and so hurt and so frustrated because I was hurt all the time. I don’t know. It was hard to keep pushing through and not check out and (Tanney) was a big part of that.”
“She was there, so supportive and encouraging,” he added. “She became my crutch really. She helped me when I was hobbling, she helped me after my surgery, the mental frustrations when I came back. I wasn’t on a team anymore. But I had her.”
Spring had six orthopedic surgeries in the two years leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When he finally made it to Olympic trials, it was as if he really had nothing to lose. Expectations were low. People questioned his durability. Coaches said if he had one weakness as a gymnast it was his flexibility, which limited his maneuvers, skills, and movements, and that he was just waiting for an injury. But despite it all, and maybe because of it all, he put together the greatest four days of his gymnastics career. He didn’t have to hold anything back. He didn’t have to worry at that point. He was the most consistent gymnast at the Olympic trials. In four days of competition, he missed on one routine.
“It’s really unbelievable. People say unbelievable a lot. But when I tell my story about making the Olympics I almost hear chuckles,” Spring said. “I stop and tell them this really happened to me. Two weeks before the Olympics I was in the emergency room after coming back from an ACL surgery only eight months ago.
“I had eight reasons, four major reasons in the two years before the Olympics not to make the team,” he said. “If I didn’t, I could always sit back and say, ‘I had all those surgeries. It’s not my fault.’”
Spring and his Olympic teammates earned bronze medals. He performed his routines on a torn deltoid ligament in his ankle that later required two surgeries to correct. The team entered the arena as underdogs but opened a lot of eyes, much as Spring had done years earlier, on the first day of practice. He had new people to impress in that Olympic world, and a chance to cross off another goal from his list. This time, it was for the right reasons. Only months later, he’d be crossing off another, one he never thought to put on his list in the first place.
“It was like me saying, ‘Oh, I want to be an astronaut,’” Spring said. “It’s unattainable. Then, some magic happened.”
Yoshi Hayasaki was retiring. He was leaving the job as head coach of the Illinois men’s gymnastics team after decades of success. The job was open after the 2008-09 season, and Spring was a popular option. A whirlwind of circumstances left him the favorite for the job, which in the gymnastics community meant he won the lottery. So few programs exist anymore and there are never openings. And because of his success in China, he was ready to accept it. He was fulfilled.
He entered this season a bull. He yelled a lot and struggled to figure out what he needed to say and how he needed to say it. The passion was there, but the approach was wrong. This wasn’t like working with a teammate, Pummer. This wasn’t like listening to a coach, Hayasaki. Or leaning on a girlfriend. This was so different. He wanted something for them. More than anything, he now wants them to have what he never did— an NCAA Championship, something for them to be proud of.
“He never won the big one,” senior co-captain Brian Liscovitz said. “That’s one thing I think he regrets the most because he tells us every day that he does. He instills in us not to forget that you can be the most talented team in the country, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not there that day, if you’re not making those extra sacrifices.”
This year’s team is among the most talented in the nation, and enters NCAA Championship competition this weekend atop the national rankings. Spring’s coaching is a major reason why. He is constantly developing. He’s maturing every day.
Spring proposed to Tanney in November of 2008 during the Assembly Hall stop of the “Tour of Gymnastics Superstars”, a follow-up event to the Olympics. The festivities paused, Spring took the microphone and wandered toward the section Tanney was sitting in. The big screen and sound system were synced with personal photos and songs. And then it happened.
“I didn’t think he could plan that,” she said. “What made me more emotional was that he had called my parents and they came down as well. So, when I turned around after proposing they were right there.”
This moment had been years in the making— from a couch in a blue house, to the Great Wall, and back. And without the people in his life, without the situations he’d been in, the hardest he could have imagined, it wouldn’t have happened like this.
Spring topped off a career of achievement with a crowd cheering not his high-flying gymnastics that made him an Illinois icon and Olympian. They cheered because this was a shared moment, not just his, and the start of something big— first a wedding next month, then a life together.
“Here, it was his moment on tour,” Tanney said. “It was the only time in his life, besides the Olympics, that a gymnast is going to get much credit and respect for what he does in front of an audience. But he still took the time out to plan something special. He knew I wouldn’t be expecting it and realized what it meant to me. I saw it was his moment and he brought me into that.
A version of this story first appeared in the Daily Illini on March 16, 2010. The story ran as part of the Daily Illini’s “Top 20 Illini Athletes of the Decade” countdown, ranking Spring second overall. To view the list, visit dailyillini.com/special/athletes-of-the-decade.
Updated on May 24, 2013, 9:35am