Phil Sheridan: The Athlete and the Astronaut

A son's lofty Olympic goal, a father's pride.

Posted: June 23, 2008

It's no wonder Justin Spring's best gymnastics event is the high bar. When your father is an astronaut, you grow up with the bar set extremely high.

"My father did two tours in Vietnam," Spring said yesterday afternoon. "He was a test pilot. He was an astronaut. He walked in space. When I would tell people about my father, they'd be like, What else can you make up about him?"

But Sherwood "Woody" Spring is real enough. He flew on the space shuttle Atlantis in 1985 and did two space walks, totaling nearly 12 hours outside the shuttle. It is no exaggeration to say he is a classic American archetype.

The Astronaut.

And yet Woody Spring might not be any prouder of his own accomplishments than he became yesterday afternoon in the hallway of a Center City hotel. That's when Justin Spring, 24, defied long odds to become another kind of archetype.

The Olympian.

"It's just different prides," said Woody Spring, tapping his chest as he sat in a Wachovia Center suite last night. "I'm not in the news anymore. I've had my turn. Now it's his turn."

"He doesn't say much," Justin Spring said. "My mother had to tell me how closely he has been following my career and how excited he is about it. That means so much, to know that my dad, someone I've always idolized, is proud of me."

With that, the newly minted member of the U.S. men's Olympic gymnastics team wiped away the tears that had sprung from his eyes.

It was a day for raw emotions. Spring came to Philadelphia for the gymnastics trials less than two weeks after a late-night visit to the emergency room for back pain that shot down his left leg. He'd been told by USA Gymnastics insiders that he was "not in the mix" for a spot on the six-man team.

"I had no chance," Spring said.

Free from the pressure of expectations, though, he delivered two days' worth of impossible-to-ignore performances. When he left the arena Saturday night, he knew he'd at least given himself a chance.

Spring hopes eternal?

"My dad actually pointed out that it was a full moon," Spring said. "When he went into space, he actually launched on a full moon. He told me the stars were aligned and this was going to happen."

And so it did, making Spring perhaps the most compelling surprise to emerge from the four days of brilliance and heartbreak, soaring highs and sudden falls, at this quadrennial passion play.

Spring's parents were collegiate gymnasts, Woody at West Point and Debbie at Arizona. And you don't fly jets and ride rockets without a certain amount of daring. So it's no surprise that Justin has been something of a daredevil since he was a toddler.

Woody recalled when Justin, no more than 3 or 4 at the time, wanted to join some older friends and family in jumping off a boathouse roof into the water.

"Debbie said no," Woody Spring said. "I said, well, wait a sec. Why don't we reserve 'no' for sticking his hand under the lawnmower?"

Justin jumped. He hasn't stopped.

"He's always been a risk taker," Woody said. "I wouldn't say we encouraged it, but we allowed it."

Justin's gymnastics style is an extension of his personality. He pushes the envelope with high-risk, high-reward routines on rings and high bar. The price he has paid includes six surgeries, among them a reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last year.

"I hear all the time that I don't train smart," Justin Spring said. "But I train the way my body allows me to train."

Two weeks before the trials, the two bulging disks in his lower back acted up. He went to the ER and had an MRI.

"The ER doctor freaked me out," Spring said. "She said I needed emergency surgery, but she didn't know my history. She said there's no way she could see me doing gymnastics in two weeks. I said, 'How about 10 days?' "

Spring said he was almost relieved by the new injury. It meant he could shift his focus toward the 2012 Olympics. The pressure was off. But his back felt mysteriously better the next day. He came to Philadelphia and surprised everyone, including the selection committee and maybe himself, with his winning performances.

Now he's going to Beijing.

The downside? Spring had hoped to follow his father and sister Sarah (Army second lieutenant now at Georgetown's medical school) in the service. But his gymnastics career, which could take him through 2012, could leave him too old and too beat up.

"They might not take him," Woody Spring said. "But you have to choose. He's definitely hurting his bod. He'll probably have arthritis in his back and his shoulders. The question becomes whether the pain you'll have at 60 is worth it. Going to the Olympics probably makes the answer yes."

There are different ways to represent your country. The Springs seem to have them covered.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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