As a camper, Justin Spring couldn’t wait to return to International Gymnastics Camp every summer, and 20 years later, nothing has changed. Since he was 9, Justin has carved time out of his busy schedule to visit IGC at least once every year as a camper, an NCAA Champion, a 2008 Olympic Bronze medalist, and as the head coach of the 2012 National Champion Men’s Gymnastics Team at the University of Illinois. Not only does he make time to return to IGC, he looks forward to passing on the knowledge and inspiration he gained at IGC throughout his 20-year run. Although Justin retired from the podium after the 2008 Olympics, he returned to the stage last year as one of the main athletes in IGC’s exciting skill-for-skill gymnastics competition, Evolution. IGC’s camp magic is what keeps Justin coming back to the place where it all started.
IGC: It’s crazy to think that you’ve been to IGC every summer since you were 9-years-old. How many years is that?
JS: I believe 1993 was my first year [at IGC] so that’s pushing about 20 years. The only summer I missed was my freshman year of college. I remember sitting in school and counting down the weeks. It was that big for me, and I still enjoy myself a lot. It’s really fun to come back!
IGC: What kind of changes have been made since you were an IGC camper?
JS: It’s definitely changed a lot, and they’ve made some incredible upgrades. Ultimately, I think the camp experience is the same because they still bring back Olympians that the kids look up to and admire. Being coached by them is fantastic, but even just getting to know them and hang out with them is great.
IGC: You lead a busy life as head coach of the Illinois Men’s Gymnastics Team and you’re a new dad! How do you carve time out of your schedule for a week at IGC every summer?
JS: IGC was like Disneyland when I was a kid. I made some incredible friendships, most of which are still intact today. I think the energy and the people were a big part of it. It really felt magical.
IGC: Do you have a favorite IGC memory that sticks out in your mind?
JS: I remember a conversation that I had with John Macready about if I had what it took to be an Olympian. I think I was like 14, but I still remember it very vividly. He told me I had what it took, but I had a lot of work to do. It was an eye-opener and I didn’t act on it for years, but it was cool. I was so crazy and out there [as a kid], loaded with talent, but needed a lot of focus and direction. I got that at IGC.
IGC: As a former camper, do you think attending gymnastics camp benefits athletes?
JS: Yes, I know it does. For me, camp is about having fun and getting away from the monotony of working with your coach. You have to keep the fun involved in the sport. IGC does a great job of incorporating fun, excitement and all of the different coaches bring different ways of teaching.
IGC: Do you see IGC with a different perspective now that you’re a full-time coach?
JS: It’s a very different kind of coaching. A lot of what I do is upper-level technical work, but also building a sense of team and togetherness for a common goal. We just won the NCAA Championship, and I can proudly say I’m the youngest coach who’s ever won it.
IGC: What’s it like to lead a freshly crowned NCAA Championship Team?
JS: The Illinois team has been a great team for over 100 years and I came in at a great time. I just came off being an athlete, but I just love the life coaching aspect of it. I really try to inspire and pull out the passion from them. If I can tap into the passion that really drives you, you can get a person that’s not going to stop at anything to accomplish a goal.
IGC: Why do you think you chose to stick with gymnastics for as long as you have? What made you want to be a part of the sport for the long haul?
JS: I think I was drawn to it. I was just really good so the talent level kept me interested. I think a certain type of problem-solving personality is drawn to this sport, and I’m really big into that. It’s never been more evident than now because I have a five-week-old baby at home. I’m having a very in-depth lesson on patience right now, but it’s good because I’m going to need it.
IGC: Coming from the underdog Olympic Team that took the Bronze medal in 2008, what do you think went through the minds of the 2012 Men’s Olympic Team during their fifth place finish?
JS: I think that this team had all of the expectation on their shoulders whereas we were the group of nobodies. We had lost the golden boys, Paul and Morgan Hamm, who really put men’s gymnastics on the map. The 2012 team placed at World Championships the year before, the scores they were putting up were huge and the talent and potential was very, very big. I think it was just a lot of pressure.
IGC: You’re an excellent motivator. Maybe they should have put you on the floor to lift their spirits!
JS: Maybe I would’ve been able to slap Horton out of it because we’ve been through so much, but I’ve never competed with Orozco or Danell. You really have to get a read for people. One of the hardest things to do is come back when you’re supposed to be this amazing, indestructible team and you make big mistakes. How do you fight the pressure and the expectation of NBC and billions of viewers? Competing at the Olympic Games is not fun. It’s tough.
IGC: You’ve done so much with gymnastics over the years. What have been your biggest accomplishments within the sport so far?
JS: I can’t really answer what my greatest accomplishment is because I feel like they’re yet to come. I’ve never been one to hang diplomas on my wall because I feel like putting something on the wall is like saying that’s as good as it gets. I’m still looking for the next big thing. I’m very proud of our accomplishment in the National Championship, but I want Illinois to be known as one of the best programs in NCAA history.
IGC: So what’s next for head coach Justin Spring?
JS: Gymnastics has really given me the opportunity to be in a position like this, but my passion is inspiring and motivating people to be the best they can be. It just so happens that I run a gymnastics team. I never presume to be an expert on anything in this sport. I would say I’m a good leader, but I have so much more to learn as a head coach. For now, I want to win more national championships and keep helping kids in gymnastics.