U.S. gymnasts in spotlight as Beijing looms | VailDaily.com

U.S. gymnasts in spotlight as Beijing looms

Barry Wilner
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Jerry Laizure/APOIllinois' Justin Spring competes on the high bar during the individual competition of the NCAA men's gymnastics championships in Norman, Okla. in April 2006.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil ” Justin Spring will never soar as high as his father, a former astronaut. He’ll have to settle for gravity-defying dismounts from the high bar.

Spring comes from a family of gymnasts, and his dad, Woody, was on the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis for a 1985 flight, when Justin was all of 1. The son wouldn’t have minded following that career path, but instead wound up a high bar and parallel bars expert, winning a total of four NCAA titles in those events at Illinois.

Now he’s at the Pan American Games, along with five teammates who all have the same mission. And no, it has nothing to do with conquering the universe.

“USA gymnastics has been under the magnifying glass the last few years,” Spring said Wednesday. “We’re always under it, it seems. Anytime you go out and compete well, it’s great for the program. This is definitely one of those experiences.

“We’re shooting for the top of the awards stand here and I think we have a solid chance. Our team, on the world and Olympic level, had been contending until 2004 for the podium. Now, after a down period, the team is trying to find itself.”

This is a good place to start. The American men fell apart at last year’s world championships, finishing 13th and failing to make the team finals ” the team’s worst finish in 30 years. The Americans need a huge improvement over the next few months before they can consider repeating any of their successes from Athens.

Some of that upgrading could come with the imminent return of Olympic champion Paul Hamm and twin brother Morgan, the stars of the men’s squad. But Spring and the rest of the Americans in Rio are well aware they must do their part.

Again, this is a good place to start.

“I look forward to having them back,” Spring said, “but it’s not like Paul and Morgan have to carry the team. Their return adds to the backbone and strength of the team dramatically.

“We’re here to catch some other countries’ eyes, to show we’re not scared to go without them into events. Besides, I think last year (at worlds) was a fluke.”

Trying to prove that will be Spring, who missed worlds with an ankle injury, David Durante, Sean Golden, Guillermo Alvarez, Joseph Hagerty and Todd Thornton.

Coach Mike Burns likes the makeup of the squad, from the effervescent Spring to the more subdued Thornton.

“When I was told what the selection committee had done, I said it was a good team,” said Burns, who coaches at Minnesota and often faced Spring when he was competing for Illinois. “They have that combination of determination when the time comes to be serious, and a light attitude that works great.

“It’s easy to set certain goals, such as gold medals as a team and individual medals. But that is based so much on stuff we don’t control. It’s hard to achieve perfection, so we focus more on successful performances.”

For the Americans, that could mean beating the Brazilians, Cubans and Puerto Ricans. For Spring, that likely means on the high bar and parallel bars. He’s agile in the air and does some very difficult tricks, including a high-flying “triple dismount” off the high bar that’s worthy of the circus and he says gets the crowd saying, “Wow, that’s exciting.”

The 23-year-old Spring admits he isn’t as strong as most other gymnasts, so he needs to be more explosive. He’s also coming off two ankle operations and a shoulder surgery that sidelined him for eight months.

During his various rehabs, Spring worked on strength training and getting his body in better shape for the sport’s other apparatus. He also began to tame some of his wildness.

“My dad threatened to cut me off if I bought a motorcycle,” he said with a mischievous smile. “But it’s subsided now. When I was a kid, I’d do some stupid things. This year, it’s forget the thrills and do what I have to do.

“I’ve dedicated the majority of my life to the sport and I want to go another five years. I’m too young not to, and I love the sport too much.”

What he’d most like to do at the Pan Ams is lead the Americans to some special achievements in a difficult environment.

“It will be a loud arena that’s not accommodating to the U.S. team, and we need to embrace that fact,” Spring said. “I’ve experienced that with NCAA gymnastics and had four years of that with the Big Ten schools. It got me prepared for this.

“We’re in the public eye of the entire country now. If you have a rough meet in college, maybe it’s in the school paper. This is a national platform, and that’s all the more exciting.”

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