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Spring relaxed, prepared to start

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING | Just another gymnastics meet.

So far, that's the strategy Justin Spring adopted as he and the rest of the U.S. Olympic men's team prepare for the opening of competition Saturday.

"Right now, I feel like I've felt for the last 20 years - wake up and practice," said Spring, who grew up in Burke. "Sometimes, you're in China, sometimes you're in Brazil. I know this is the biggest sporting event in the world, but it feels like every other meet and that's a way to keep your nerves at bay."

Expect that to change at high noon (midnight Eastern).

"He admits he gets nervous but he deals with it," Spring's longtime coach, Jon Valdez, said.

Spring is expected to compete in five of the six events during qualifying.

The United States won the silver medal in 2004, but no one from that squad will compete Saturday. Defending all-around gold medalist Paul Hamm is out with an injury, and twin brother Morgan dropped out Thursday night with an ankle injury. Alexander Artemev replaces Morgan Hamm on the team.

"The expectations for this don't change," Jonathan Horton said. "What's great about this team is we're deep."

Spring's role is to provide the same kind of consistent routines that made him the surprise of trials despite not having full training sessions entering the competition because of an ankle injury. He has trained completely since trials.

"My ankle has not gotten any better, so we've been taping it strong," he said. "It's hard training to peak so many times in a month or so, but I think I'm on track again. I'm ready to compete."

In the qualifying event, there are six events, five gymnasts to an event. The top four scores count.

"Our number one goal is consistent gymnastics through the team qualification and team finals," U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika said. "We feel we have a very strong and consistent team and have good command over all of our routines."

Spring hasn't changed much about his routines on the high bar and parallel bars. Valdez said his style will impress international judges.

"Absolutely because he's dynamic, explosive and fun to watch," he said. "When he does a skill that is the same as another gymnast, Justin makes it look easy and is a little more explosive. Judges like that."

Valdez and Spring have implemented a less risky routine on the bar events, partly because of Spring's injuries and partly to get maximum points to help the team.

"We've completely bought into what's doing best for the team, and that's why we've kind of watered down a little bit because it's a more consistent routine," Valdez said.

Said Spring: "I trained crazy start values, but the injuries got the best of me. Even a year ago, we had our sights set a lot higher because we knew the Chinese would be stepping up their start values."

Spring's parents and his girlfriend will watch him at National Indoor Stadium. He described the days after trails as "just chaos - it was awesome."

"Going into trials, I was told by a few people in the sport that I wasn't really in the mix," he said. "I went in with really no expectations, and I was just going to compete. Making the team threw my life upside down. ... It's all going to set in when I'm done with the whole thing."