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For Star Gymnast Spring, It Really Hurts to Get Better

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.

While recovering from a litany of other injuries during his gymnastics career -- a torn labrum, stretched tendons in his wrists, three ankle surgeries -- Spring had constructed a theory about rehabilitation. "If it's hurting, then it's working," he said. So, to recover from his ACL tear, Spring returned to Champaign and sought out a plan that "hurt like hell."

His coach, Jon Valdez, conspired with men's national team coordinator Ron Brandt to create a 12-week strength program designed to inflict misery. Spring works out twice each day, and he's required to complete two strength exercises each session. He does 10 sets of each exercise, and each set lasts until his muscles fail. On a recent afternoon, Spring strapped on a weighted vest and did pull-ups until his arms gave out. He hit the ground, exhausted, with nine sets left.

Coaches believe the program could help Spring build the strength necessary to compete in rings and pommel horse, two events he's essentially ignored at the national level for the last six years. Spring's long arms and narrow torso make him supple and fast, but they also keep him from amassing the bulk strength necessary to suspend for long stretches on rings and pommel horse. If Spring can become even mediocre in those two exercises, he might be able to secure a spot on the 2008 team by placing first or second in the all-around competition at the Olympic trials.

"The goal of this training program is basically to break his body down and build it up stronger than ever before," Valdez said. "We joke about it, because Justin has never really done that Soviet kind of hard work. He's gotten by on talent. I'm not sure how much he's really pushed himself until now."

Spring rounds out his two-a-day training sessions with frequent physical therapy and incessant icing. He's supposed to fit in regular naps and massage sessions, but his coaching and recruiting duties at Illinois allow time for neither. He's suffering from some minor tendinitis in the knee as a result of over-working early in his recovery, but Spring said he can't afford to slow down.

Twice each week, Spring visits an athletic trainer at Illinois who specializes in soft tissue rehabilitation. When Spring walks into his office, Randy Ballard pulls out a tool that looks like a metal popsicle stick and scrapes around the four-inch scar on Spring's knee. The procedure, so painful that many athletes refuse it, diminishes scar tissue and allows the knee to regain a complete range of motion.

"Justin calls it a torture session," Ballard said. "But he knows that's what it takes sometimes to make real progress."

* * *

Late one night last week, Spring sat at the kitchen table of his suburban Champaign house and imagined what it would feel like to vault again. He has watched replays of his injury more than 1,000 times on YouTube, and he once caught himself wincing while watching another athlete vault in the Illinois gym.

"I'm not the kind of person who usually thinks twice about things," Spring said. "But now I'm kind of worried I'm psyching myself out."

He's still unsure whether he will try another 1,080-degree twisting vault at the Olympic trials, or if he'll settle for a more moderate 720-degree spin. The gap between those two vaults might determine the difference between first place and second, between world class and mundane, between Olympian and not.

Spring takes great pride in his self-described reputation as gymnastics' "crazy kid." He drives his Mazda Speed3 like he's on a racetrack, and he wants to become a pilot when he retires from gymnastics. He originally abandoned pommel horse in part because it is a technical routine performed close to the ground, and Spring prefers to electrify a crowd. During meets, Spring spikes his blond hair so that he looks like a punk-rocker. He shakes his fists in the air after nailing a difficult exercise.

"I know, deep down, that I'm the kind of guy who should go out there, try that vault again and nail it," Spring said. "I'm not somebody who goes for easy, who stays with basics. I've always been the king of hating basics. That's not what this sport is about for me.

"I want to be that guy in the sport that makes people go, 'Holy hell! What was that?' That's what's motivating me every day in the gym coming back from this injury, because I can't wait until people are like, 'Look at what Spring is doing already. That guy's insane!'"

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