Healthy Spring leads UI into Big Ten meet

CHAMPAIGN – By definition, roommates tend to know things others don''t, which partly explains why Adam Pummer isn''t going to give up Justin Spring''s secrets without a fight.

Pummer has borne witness to his Illinois gymnastics teammate taking risks on many occasions. And if people hang around the Illini''s training facilities long enough, they''ll see for themselves.

"We definitely had our fair share of crazy times and risk taking, especially for him in the gym," said Pummer, who''ll join Spring and the Illini in this weekend''s Big Ten Championships at Huff Hall. "He shows it off most in the gym."

The "rush" from doing things most people won''t or can''t do is part of Spring''s makeup. In a way, he had little choice. His father, Woody, was a test pilot and a former astronaut who served as a mission specialist for the space shuttle Atlantis'' voyage in late 1985.

The glamour of being an astronaut is matched only by its risk. While his father''s career influenced him, it was secondary. Justin didn''t need a push.

"As a kid, I loved taking risks, building tree houses, being in the air," he said. "I''m a gymnast, so naturally I love taking risks. It just kind of suits my personality."

So when Spring enrolled at Illinois, he took up engineering. Then he discovered engineering''s dirty little secret.

"There isn''t even flying involved in engineering," Spring said. "You design the airplanes that people get to fly. I''m like, this is not what I want to do at all. I''d rather go to flight school. That''s the fun part that I saw my dad was doing. Not the engineering part."

He will acknowledge that the same approach has forced him to make adjustments in his athletic endeavors. Spring''s career has been interrupted routinely by injuries, including a pair of stress fractures in his wrist, numerous ankle injuries and nagging ailments. Partly, these are the things gymnasts must deal with. But Spring''s been more susceptible than most, and that''s a trend he quickly is putting to rest.

As a sophomore, he has been injury-free for the first time since his sophomore season in high school, and the results have followed. He has broken five UI individual records; has claimed 19 event titles in 40 routines; and is No. 1 nationally, according to the GymInfo rankings, in the floor exercise and parallel bars.

"Up until last year, most of my injuries have been stress related," Spring said. "Too much training. You see all of the wrist activity we do. I think coming to college, my coaches are more understanding. They individualize each gymnast."

Illinois coach Yoshi Hayasaki has tailored Spring''s training. He said the increased structure in training, Spring''s increased strength and the athlete''s greater maturity have led to a sparkling season.

"Those are the three major areas why he''s getting better rapidly and he''s being consistent," Hayasaki said.

Spring still faces the perils of a freak injury, such as the nasty spill he took last season that led to torn ligaments in his left wrist. Surgery tightened the ligaments, but he has chronic wrist pain.

"It''s tough going through seasons without ever reaching your full potential because you can''t train," Spring said. "Finally, it''s started to happen."

Spring made sure it would. While injuries tried to knock his career sideways, Spring always rebounded. It wasn''t so easy for others.

"My mom ... you know how moms are," Spring said. "She''s living vicariously through my life and I get hurt and she says, ''I can''t believe this is happening again.'' I''m like, ''Mom, I just roll with it.'' It''s happened so often. I''m just like, ''Cast it up, doc, let''s go.'' "

His mother, Debbie, was a gymnast at Arizona. Woody competed at the U.S. Military Academy. Spring''s sister, Sarah, completed her career at Ohio State in 2003.

"Whenever my mom would say, ''Maybe this isn''t the right sport for you,'' I''d just get so mad at her," Spring said. "What are you talking about? This is what I''ve done since I was 3 years old. I''ve come so far, and I have these setbacks, and I bounce back."

And how.

If injuries have limited his potential, they haven''t kept him from earning a spot on the U.S. Junior National team or from reaching international competition, including last summer''s World University Games, where he reached the finals in floor exercise.

Despite an injury-ravaged freshman season at the UI, Spring earned All-America honors by placing fourth in floor exercise and seventh on parallel bars at the NCAA Championships.

He is balancing the risk associated with tougher routines, higher scores and more injuries.

"He gets his bonus from doing really big skills," Pummer said. "He definitely takes a lot more risks than other people in the country."

And Spring is generating a buzz among the sport''s highest echelon. He''ll get a chance this spring to show if he''s ready for a spot on the U.S. National team. Until then, he''s content to help Illinois in search of Big Ten and NCAA titles.

"We always knew he had enough talent," Pummer said. "It''s great for us he''s healthy. I knew he could do it."

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Six Big Ten teams will compete for the conference title this weekend at Huff Hall. Five of the nation''s top seven ranked teams will be in action. A look at the contenders:

Illinois

The top-ranked Illini are looking for their first Big Ten title since 1989. Justin Spring ranks first in the nation in floor exercise (9.700 average) and parallel bars (9.483), and teammate Ben Newman is tops in pommel horse (9.750). "This is going to be a very close competition," coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "The team that makes the least mistakes will win."

Iowa

Linas Geveika is No. 1 on high bar (9.792 average) nationally and ranks eighth in the all-around. Michael McNamara (sixth) and Michael Reavis (seventh) are contenders in floor exercise for the sixth-ranked Hawkeyes.

Michigan

Champs in 1999 and 2000, the Wolverines are ranked seventh. They''re led by Geoff Corrigan, sixth in the all-around rankings (53.933).

Minnesota

The No. 11 Gophers rely on Guillermo Alvarez, ranked fourth in the all-around (54.300). He''s toughest in the vault (9.458, fifth) and floor exercise (9.425, fifth).

Ohio State

Junior Randy Monahan, the defending all-around champion and the Big Ten''s reigning Gymnast of the Year, leads the third-ranked Buckeyes. Then No. 1, Ohio State defeated Illinois 220.200-219.000 on Jan. 31, two weeks after finishing in front of the Illini at the Windy City Invitational.

Penn State

Ranked No. 4, the Nittany Lions are the defending champs. Kevin Tan is ranked third nationally in the all-around, and he''s first in the still rings (9.85). Zach Roeder is second in pommel horse (9.617).

You can reach Tony Bleill at (217) 351-5605 or via e-mail at tbleill@news-gazette.com.

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