- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

Everything was going so well for Justin Spring that day last August at the U.S. Nationals. He won the high bar. He finished second on the floor exercise. And his strongest event - parallel bars - was still ahead. A few more solid routines and his spot on the world championship men’s gymnastics team would be secured.

But then came the pop heard around HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

On a vault attempt, Spring landed and his knee buckled, rupturing his right ACL. Another surgery - his fourth in 11 months - would follow. A trip to the world gymnastics championships was out, and his dream of earning a spot on the six-man Olympic team a year later turned into a dicey proposition. A gymnastics career that started when he was 3 years old was in jeopardy.

“Until we got the MRI and realized it was only the ACL, I was freaking out,” Spring said. “Forget about the Olympics; I was thinking I might not be able to ski again.”

A year later, Spring is an Olympian.

Spring, who grew up in Burke and attended Lake Braddock High School, was the surprise of the trials earlier this summer. Crowd-pleasing performances on the parallel bars, high bar, vault and floor exercise catapulted him from a long shot to a spot on the team, which begins competition in team qualifying Saturday.

The United States earned the silver medal in the Athens team competition, but without defending all-around champion Paul Hamm, it will need world-class performances from Spring and others to reach the medal stand next week.

While every gymnast has his or her injury story, Spring is unique. He has several health stories, making his journey to Beijing an example of perseverance.

In a span of 11 months, Spring underwent two ankle surgeries along with shoulder and knee operations. And he overcame a bum ankle to perform at trials despite limited training time.

“Justin’s recovery is amazing,” teammate Morgan Hamm said. “To come back from an injury like that so quickly, when I saw him [in March], I was amazed by how far he had come. He brings some rare gymnastics to the table - no one can do some of the skills he has.”

Spring admits his style of gymnastics, particularly on the high bar and parallel bars, is high-risk, high-reward. But he hopes his aerial maneuvers can impress international judges who haven’t seen him in person before.

“[Earning a medal] is definitely a possibility on both,” said Spring’s coach, Jon Valdez. “He could make event finals on parallel bars, and his routine is getting better all the time. He’s going to perform better at the Olympics because trials was where the pressure was at. Now it’s going to be fun, and he thrives on the fun aspect.”

For too long, the fun was missing for Spring. Enjoyment tends to disappear when surgeries outnumber competitions.

The litany of injuries began at the world championships two years ago. A torn labrum in his left shoulder and a right ankle injury forced him to withdraw from the event. Shoulder surgery was successful. The ankle was trickier. Several specialists tried to diagnose the problem. Two surgeries later, the problem was corrected.

But Spring was healthy last summer for the San Jose event, and he had his sights set on worlds. Then came another injury.

“It was frightening,” he said. “I hit the mat and heard the pop and was like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ Once the doctor got in there and did the test and he said he was 99 percent sure the ACL was gone, all I could think about was, ‘Twenty-one years of training and with this one moment it’s gone.’”

Once the emotion had subsided soon after, Spring had two questions:

“How long is the recovery?”

“When are the Olympics?”

Told less than a year, Spring went to work. He returned two months earlier than anticipated but then faced a road-block with another ankle injury that didn’t require surgery but did require rest. When he arrived in Philadelphia for trials, it was the first time he put his body through the required pounding.

Spring’s support system aided him in another round of rehabilitation. Both of his parents were gymnasts - his father, Woody, at the U.S. Military Academy and his mother, Debbie, at Cal State Northridge. Woody later became an astronaut, and Justin originally majored in aerospace engineering at Illinois before switching to communications. Justin earned a spot on the junior national team at age 14, won a national title the next year and was a four-time NCAA champion (two each on high bar and parallel bars).

With the Olympics coming, Spring had to decide early whether his high-risk routine philosophy would translate to his recovery.

“You don’t have time to get down,” he said. “I had some after the surgery when I reflected. More than anything, I took that time to look to the future and basically said, ‘Your time bracket is perfect.’ I then told myself I would be the comeback kid. I had worked too hard to let this Olympic year slide past.”

That mind-set has made the dream a reality.

“It’s a fantastic story,” said David Durante, an alternate on the Olympic team. “Justin is a guy who would have been on the worlds team last year. To watch him get hurt was tough. He wants to be out there competing badly, and I knew he would be back. Him competing will put pressure on the other countries because we have another talented guy back.”

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