EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: WOver the weekend, Justin Spring coached two NCAA champs and the Illini to third place in the team finals. It wasn't long ago he was a college star himself.
Date: June 11, 2006
Headline: Order him up an Olympic gold
By JIM ROSSOW
Most bartenders at Barfly in downtown Champaign get requests for martinis, cosmopolitans and chardonnay.
Justin Spring gets requests for handstands.
'Once they find out I'm that gymnastics guy, that's when they ask me to do something like that,' Spring said. 'But there's hardly any room behind the bar. I'd probably get hurt if I try, and my coach wouldn't like that.'
So Spring, the most agile bartender in C-U history, sticks to the basics. He pours, mixes and shakes. Plus, most of his customers have no idea the 22-year-old serving manhattans is one of America's best bets for a medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
'If they did,' Barfly owner Andrew Cotner said, 'they'd be asking him to do backflips all the time.'
Fast and furious
Justin Spring is on his way home to Virginia, talking as fast as he's driving. About the Olympics, his aching shoulder, his desire to join the Marines and become a pilot. There's not a topic missing a take.
'He's like a top-fuel dragster,' said Illinois men's gymnastics assistant Jon Valdez, who coaches Spring in international competitions.
'He goes 100 mph at anything he does.'
What Spring does best is gymnastics. He's a four-time NCAA champion, won the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy as a senior and is an up-and-comer on the international circuit.
What Spring does worst is tell anyone about it. He'd rather head-butt a pommel horse than advertise his Olympic potential.
As a result, anonymity is a close friend of his.
'In no way do I consider myself a celebrity,' Spring said. 'Now, someone like Dee Brown, he's an icon in town. It correlates with how many times your face is in the paper.'
Dee Brown is Dear Abby. Justin Spring is underwater tiddlywinks.
On Thursday night, Spring stopped in Columbus, Ohio, and spent time with Olympic medalists Paul and Morgan Hamm, who are training at Ohio State. Spring was taken by the number of times the twins were pulled aside by passers-by.
'I never imagined a gymnast could be so famous,' Spring said. 'There was a picture taken every two minutes.'
Spring's Kodak moment is two years away. Assuming he makes it to Beijing.
There are injuries to heal (he's putting off shoulder surgery until after October's U.S. Championships), routines to refresh (he's been off for six weeks) and judges to impress.
The sport, Valdez admits, is 'political.' Gymnasts advance on reputation as much as scores.
'You've got to be good, certainly,' Valdez said, 'but you have to know how to work the system, too. You have to keep a lot of people happy.'
Good thing Spring is Mr. Congeniality in tights. He could get along with an 0-for-4 Barry Bonds.
Good as gold
At Barfly, business is good. Much better since Cotner returned from San Diego in April to take a more hands-on approach.
Step 1: Hire Spring. Step 2: Get out of the way.
'The kid never stops: It's go-go-go-go,' Cotner said. 'He's positive, hard-working, someone I want representing this place. I want that guy greeting every one of our customers.'
At Illinois gymnastics, business is good. Much better since coach Yoshi Hayasaki and Valdez convinced Spring and Adam Pummer to join the program in 2003.
Step 1: Put them in the lineup. Step 2: Get out of the way.
'We told them they could come in and be poster boys for the team,' Valdez said. 'They really helped lift our program back up in notoriety.'
In general, business is good for Spring.
He's got an understanding girlfriend, demanding coaches and more friends than a Powerball winner. His skill level and work ethic are off the charts. He's even got an endorsement contract, Team Chevron signing Spring to a deal that includes gas discounts. At $2.90 a gallon, that comes in handy on interstate hikes like the one he took this week.
He'd like the trip to end in China.
'When you're 10, you say to yourself you're going to go to the Olympics,' Spring said. 'And then, all of a sudden, that possibility becomes a reality. I have a lot of work to do yet. But just thinking about it is pretty cool.'
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette. You can reach him at 217-351-5231 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .