He's got high hopes

He's got high hopes

URBANA – If Justin Spring has his way, he'll spend Thanksgiving in Australia.

"I'll be having turkey dinner over in Melbourne if it all works out," the Illinois gymnast said.

Whether Spring does, in fact, travel Down Under next month will be determined this weekend in Colorado Springs, Colo. That's where the Illini senior and 18 other of the nation's top gymnasts will gather to vie for spots on a six-man team that will represent the U.S. in the World Gymnastics Championships.

Spring leaves today for the U.S. Men's Team Selection Competition, which will be held Friday and Sunday at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

The reigning U.S. champion in the high bar, Spring will compete in that event and three others: parallel bars, floor exercise and vault. On Monday, the selection panel will announce which five gymnasts will join U.S. all-around champion Todd Thornton in Melbourne for the world meet Nov. 21-27.

"I know for sure they're looking at me for the high bar," Spring said.

Although Spring is an accomplished gymnast in most events – he won the 2005 NCAA title in the parallel bars – the high bar has emerged as the 21-year-old's signature event. In 2004, Spring captured the NCAA crown in that skill and placed fourth at the U.S. Championships.

This year, besides claiming the U.S. high bar title, he placed second in the event in the American Cup international meet at Uniondale, N.Y.

The format for this year's World Championships might enhance Spring's chances of making the U.S. squad. No team scores will be kept. Instead, the focus is on all-around and individual events. Rather than choosing gymnasts most likely to score in multiple events, the U.S. selection committee will be inclined to pick gymnasts with the best chance to medal in a specific event.

"In that respect, I think Justin has a very good chance of making the team," Illini coach Yoshi Hayasaki said, "because he has proved that his high bar routine is the best in the nation if not the world."

A member of the U.S. Senior National Team since February, Spring received a noteworthy visit last week from Stacy Maloney, the longtime coach of 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm. Maloney spent three days at Kenney Gym, observing Spring train and offering suggestions.

"He gets guys ready for big events," Spring said.

The seven-time All-American said the visiting coach was particularly helpful with advice for two events. Maloney worked with Spring on his body posture and presentation in the floor exercise, particularly for the beginning and end of the Illini's routine.

"We spent a huge amount of time on that," Spring said. "In the end it could make a tenth of a point or two-tenths difference (in his score).

Maloney also tweaked Spring's parallel bars routine, "basically adding flair," the Illini senior said.

But Maloney might have been most helpful simply through his encouraging words. After one workout, the coach told Spring: "I don't know any reason why they shouldn't pick you."

Said Spring: "I didn't think about it until I got home that night. Then I thought 'Wow.' Just seeing the confidence he had in me."

This weekend, Spring is determined to affirm that confidence. If he does, Spring will get to find out if turkey's on the menu in Melbourne.

"I just need to hit a set or two and I'll have the biggest opportunity of my life," he said.

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