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Gymnast Justin Spring Explains How His Collegiate Career Shaped Him To Be The Best Olympian & Coach

By Elizabeth Wyman | Sept. 26, 2020, 10:30 a.m. (ET)

Justin Spring won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games before coaching men's gymnastics at the University of Illinois.


University of Illinois men’s gymnastics coach, Justin Spring, has had his share of high-pressure moments in life. And he’s one of the lucky ones who thrives in them.

There was the time he defended his NCAA parallel bars crown in 2006, winning back-to back championships while adding on a title in the high bar.

Or the time at the 2008 U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Olympic Team Trials where he attempted a floor routine for the first time in two-and-a-half months to solidify his spot on the team despite an ankle injury. Or when he was part of a team of rookies who pulled off the improbable bronze medal win at the 2008 Olympic Games.

“You see some guys thrive under it like I did,” he said. “For me, I felt like my team had my back; I was excited to be a part of it.”

That’s the mindset that he said he learned while he was a student-athlete at the University of Illinois, and what he’s helped further engrain into the men’s gymnastics program for the past 11 seasons as head coach – embrace the pressure and deliver.

“My college experience, competing for my team, gave me the skills,” Spring said. “Purely that competition melting pot – you learn to be resilient and being able to compete for a team under all circumstances.”

It’s a program that Spring has spent half of his life with and one he credits much of his Olympic Team success.

“For my one and done Olympic experience, to compete my best – and I did – I had one of my best meets at the Olympic Games; I can say absolutely that was because of my competitive experience in college athletics.”

Justin Spring competes at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 9, 2008 in Beijing. 


Spring, now 36, is a four-time NCAA champion, 13-time All-American, three-time Big Ten champion, and 2006 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year and Nissen-Emery Award winner.

He’s coached 10 gymnasts to NCAA event titles and his athletes have garnered 75 All-America honors during his tenure. At 28, he was the youngest coach in NCAA history to earn National Coach of the Year honors after leading the Illini to its 10th NCAA team championship in 2012 – a feat he fell just short of during his time as student-athlete.

“You get this precious four years, four opportunities to try and win a national title,” Spring said. “Just to be in the conversation is special but knowing that you came up four tenths short your senior year just was devasting.”

His senior year, Oklahoma topped Illinois by four tenths of a point to win the NCAA championship. In 2012, Spring’s third full season as head coach, his team bested Oklahoma, giving him that coveted team title he had longed for.

Spring has long been an advocate for college men’s gymnastics. As a sport that has been hit hard during athletic department cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he drives home the fact that he found success during his tenure as an eight-time senior national team member because of the elite competition he faced at the college level.

“I tell my team this all of the time I could literally see my heart beating through my uniform at the competition floor at the Olympic Games,” he said. “But I had felt that exact feeling before at every Big Ten and every NCAA championship event.

Spring notes the importance of college education and that while most college gymnasts will not go on to compete at the next level, through sport, he wants to help prepare them for what comes next.

“I tell them this is our teaching grounds; our gym this is our classroom,” he said. “Yes, it will make you the best gymnast you can be, but it’s also going to set you up for the rest of your life.”

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Justin Spring