Asmussen | Quick stop turned into great journey for Spring

 

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CHAMPAIGN — When he first came to town in 2002, Justin Spring figured it would be a short stay.

Four years of gymnastics at Illinois. Pick up an engineering degree (more on that later). Move on to the next stage of his life.

"This was just a college," Spring said. "It was going to be an amazing college experience."

Well, plans change. It's 2019, and Spring is finishing his 10th season as Illini men's gymnastics coach.

"I had no idea my time here was going to be extended for the reasons it was," Spring said.

He stayed in C-U to train for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And Illinois kept him on the staff as an assistant coach.

He trained from noon to 3 p.m. each day, then coached from 3-6.

"I worked a full-time job and trained for the Olympics on the side," Spring said. "I couldn't be more grateful that Illinois gave me that opportunity. I didn't have to leave this place."

Smart move. Despite major injuries, Spring helped the U.S. win the bronze medal.

Early start

At age 25, Spring was offered the chance to take over as coach by then-athletic director Ron Guenther.

"I said, 'Are you sure you want to do that?'" Spring said.

A decade later, it looks like a wise choice.

Spring has led the Illini to four Big Ten titles and the 2012 NCAA championship.

Spring saw Guenther at the Hall of Fame Gala in 2018. He had to ask.

"I said, 'What were you thinking?'" Spring said. "He was like, 'I knew exactly what I was doing.' It's just crazy. And now, I can't imagine doing anything else."

Change of course

We ask the new recruits all the time: Why Illinois?

For Spring, who went to high school in Virginia, there were many reasons.

"It was the place, the fans that I walked through on that football game weekend, obviously the team was super, super, super important to me," Spring said.

"I really felt they were going to be a part of my extended family. I also loved Yoshi (Hayasaki)'s story and how long he'd been here and his history with the program. And I came here to do engineering as well."

About that ... his degree is in speech communications.

The son of astronaut Sherwood Spring, Justin Spring was an aerospace engineering major. For two years.

"We're digging into one of my biggest regrets of my life, abandoning an engineering degree after two years of hard work," Spring said.

He had just made the national team and was about to go to Australia in the middle of October. Something had to give.

"I just took the easy way out, and I've regretted it tremendously," he said.

"I should have just buckled down and knocked it out and have an engineering degree. Not that I would use it. But that would be a pretty awesome thing to have from Illinois."

Spring realizes now engineering and gymnastics are a good fit.

"Almost a quarter of my team are engineers," he said. "I recruit heavily to engineers. I just had a recruit on campus (going into) engineering, and that's why he was here.

"It absolutely can be done."

Staying put?

Illinois has a history of longtime gymnastics coaches. With big-time success.

Hartley Price won four national titles between 1930-48. Charlie Pond took four NCAA titles from 1949-73. And Hayasaki won one national title and six Big Ten titles in two stints from 1974-2009.

Spring wants to be the next longtime coach. As long as the sport remains viable at the college level.

The number of schools sponsoring men's gymnastics teams continues to dwindle.

"I could see myself being here for 30 years," Spring said. "It's not about if I'll be here, but will college gymnastics be here?"

He's got more than himself to think about. Spring and wife Tori have two kids with a third on the way in September.

C-U is home.

"The years I've stayed here, the more I've come to understand and appreciate what Champaign has to offer," Spring said. "When you're a college kid, you don't know anything outside Green Street. The concept of downtown, I don't think it hit me until my senior year. Now, I'm there every night with my wife."

Back in the day

This weekend, Spring leads the Illini into the NCAA championships. The school hosts the meet today and Saturday at State Farm Center.

In 2004, then-sophomore Spring competed in the NCAA meet at the Assembly Hall. He won the high bar title.

It's a special event.

"There's something different about the feel of it being the big show," Spring said. "You can see the NCAA logo on the trophies and the signage around the venue. Whenever you see that it's a big deal. It sits a little heavier in your heart and in your gut."

What memory sticks out?

"A big group of my friends painted their chests and were running around like idiots on the lower ring," Spring said.

In 2004, Spring didn't compete in the all-around because "my pommel horse wasn't strong enough for the team."

Then-coach Hayasaki made the decision. Without hearing any complaints from Spring.

"So, I only did five events," Spring said, "which is what I did at the Olympics, actually."

Spring won four individual NCAA titles at Illinois and was a 13-time All-American. A two-time Dike Eddleman Award winner, Spring was given the ultimate honor in 2018 when he was picked for his school's hall of fame.

"I was blown away," Spring said. "I'm only 35. It was for my athletic career, and that part of me is long gone. Part of me would have wanted to be inducted when I'm 60 and don't have much going on in my life.

"It's something that gained perspective over time because I'm so close to this. It's something that will start to have more and more impact on my life as I get older. It meant the world to me to be inducted as the second gymnast."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.