For Star Gymnast Spring, It Really Hurts to Get Better

Justin Spring
As the Olympics approach, Burke's Justin Spring tries to come back from knee surgery. (Darrell Hoemann - for the Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. His daily training schedule called for rehabilitation, but Justin Spring had long ago dismissed most things gentle or conservative. Instead, the aspiring Olympic gymnast walked into the University of Illinois practice facility last week and stripped down to his blue athletic shorts. He covered his hands in chalk and honey, inhaled and approached the parallel bars, which stood almost seven feet above ground.

Spring, 23, had undergone reconstructive surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee six weeks earlier -- his fourth major operation in 11 months -- and he could still hear echoes of doctors' warnings rattling through his head. Give it some time, three or four months to recover. Because if he slipped and fell just once . . . or landed awkwardly . . . or too suddenly shifted his weight, he would re-injure the ACL and risk missing his chance to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"Basically, I can't mess up," said Spring, from Burke, as he lifted himself onto the parallel bars. "If I do, I'm pretty much screwed."

Spring, an assistant coach at Illinois, lost all margin for error two months ago when he miscalculated the landing of a vault at the national championships in San Jose. Other elite gymnasts at that meet projected Spring's ACL recovery timeline -- six or seven months of rehab followed by a few months of rustiness -- and wondered if he could return at full strength for Olympic qualifying this summer. "He's one of our most talented guys," gymnast Paul Hamm said then, "but who knows if he'll get back to where he was."

In the weeks since his surgery, Spring has turned his rehab into the most difficult training cycle of his career -- one designed to build strength, not just maintain it. Already among the best U.S. gymnasts in four events, Spring plans to return to competition and participate in all six events. He hopes to contend for an all-around title at the Olympic trials, to be held in Philadelphia in June.

Moderation hardly fits into his plans for the next 10 months, so Spring dismissed the risks and lifted himself up onto the parallel bars during his practice last week. He flipped upside down and extended into a tenuous, elevated handstand. As his coach sipped coffee and watched, Spring tried to spin from one bar to the other and accidentally over-rotated. His hands slipped. His legs coiled. He started to plunge toward the ground.

In midair, Spring weighed two choices: He could push himself away from the bar, jump to the ground and land comfortably on his feet, thereby chancing his fragile ACL. Or he could accept his fate, slam back onto the bars and risk ending up mangled.

Spring chose the second option, and his right thigh slammed against the bar with a thud. He screamed and lifted his shorts to check the damage. On his upper thigh, a red mark the size of a softball had started oozing blood.

"Oh, man," Spring said. "Oh, God. I think I've got a bone bruise here. I feel like throwing up. But at least I didn't hurt my knee."

* * *

Before he tore his ACL, Spring had considered himself a lock to make the six-member Olympic team for the first time in his career. He had recently won international medals in high bar and parallel bars, and national medals for vault and floor routine. In each of those four exercises, his routine earned a higher difficulty rating than that of any other U.S. athlete. Coaches described Spring as the country's most naturally gifted gymnast, a threat to win multiple medals in Beijing.

He was one of the only gymnasts in the world ever to try his vault at the U.S. championships. He sprinted down the runway, catapulted into the air and flipped while rotating 1,080 degrees. He landed hard on his right leg, and his knee buckled. In the underbelly of San Jose's HP Pavilion a few hours later, three doctors studied the knee and diagnosed an injury. Spring underwent physical therapy the next day to help reduce swelling. He submitted to surgery less than a week later.

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