What It's Like To...

What It's Like To Win an Olympic Medal

November 09, 2022 Elizabeth Pearson Garr Season 4 Episode 7
What It's Like To Win an Olympic Medal
What It's Like To...
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What It's Like To...
What It's Like To Win an Olympic Medal
Nov 09, 2022 Season 4 Episode 7
Elizabeth Pearson Garr

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Justin Spring went from tumbling around his neighborhood to later winning NCAA gymnastics titles and eventually earning a place on the 2008 Olympic team.  The road getting there had its share of twists and turns (pun intended), including a slew of injuries leading up to the Olympics.  Justin shares behind-the-scenes stories of his journey, from the lowest moment in his gymnastics career (when he had to army-crawl to his coach's room due to excruciating pain); to the mental techniques he relied on to get his body back into shape; to what life was really like in the Olympic Village.  Justin is now a college gymnastics coach (formerly for the University of Illinois men; now for the University of Alabama women).  We learn about pressure, expectations, why men's gymnastics is losing popularity (and college teams) in the U.S., and why competing for "perfect 10s" makes women's gymnastics much more entertaining. 

In this episode:

  • Why gymnastics is such a difficult sport (05:47)
  • How gymnastics suited Justin's personality (08:20)
  • Thoughts about pursuing the Olympics and gold medals (09:26)
  • Justin's many injuries (15:06)
  • The importance of mental training in recovery (15:58)
  • His journey through injuries to the Olympic Trials (19:30)
  • The darkest moment of Justin's career (21:32)
  • The underdog story at the 2008 Olympics (25:07)
  • What the Olympic experience was like (31:06)
  • The state of men’s gymnastics in the US (34:04)
  • What's happening in collegiate sports (36:05)
  • Thoughts on coaching (41:42)

Want to know more about Justin?

  • Follow him on Instagram: springerzz
  • Find him on Twitter: @justinspring 
Want to know more about the podcast What It's Like To... ?

  • Sign up to be on our Insiders' List to receive our newsletters and insiders' information! Go to whatitsliketo.net (sign-ups are at the bottom of the page)
  • Follow us on social media:

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Justin Spring went from tumbling around his neighborhood to later winning NCAA gymnastics titles and eventually earning a place on the 2008 Olympic team.  The road getting there had its share of twists and turns (pun intended), including a slew of injuries leading up to the Olympics.  Justin shares behind-the-scenes stories of his journey, from the lowest moment in his gymnastics career (when he had to army-crawl to his coach's room due to excruciating pain); to the mental techniques he relied on to get his body back into shape; to what life was really like in the Olympic Village.  Justin is now a college gymnastics coach (formerly for the University of Illinois men; now for the University of Alabama women).  We learn about pressure, expectations, why men's gymnastics is losing popularity (and college teams) in the U.S., and why competing for "perfect 10s" makes women's gymnastics much more entertaining. 

In this episode:

  • Why gymnastics is such a difficult sport (05:47)
  • How gymnastics suited Justin's personality (08:20)
  • Thoughts about pursuing the Olympics and gold medals (09:26)
  • Justin's many injuries (15:06)
  • The importance of mental training in recovery (15:58)
  • His journey through injuries to the Olympic Trials (19:30)
  • The darkest moment of Justin's career (21:32)
  • The underdog story at the 2008 Olympics (25:07)
  • What the Olympic experience was like (31:06)
  • The state of men’s gymnastics in the US (34:04)
  • What's happening in collegiate sports (36:05)
  • Thoughts on coaching (41:42)

Want to know more about Justin?

  • Follow him on Instagram: springerzz
  • Find him on Twitter: @justinspring 
Want to know more about the podcast What It's Like To... ?

  • Sign up to be on our Insiders' List to receive our newsletters and insiders' information! Go to whatitsliketo.net (sign-ups are at the bottom of the page)
  • Follow us on social media:

Support the Show.

Justin  0:07  

I didn't go into this, like I trained my entire life. This is my moment. Everything's perfect. It's ready to go. It's set up do just don't blow it right? Just this is it. It was more like, I rolled off an emergency er does it two weeks ago? I can't even believe I'm here right now. Let's just send it Let's go baby.

Elizabeth  0:28  

Okay, I have to give some context for that quote. The speaker is Justin Spring, and he's talking about competing at the Olympics. Yes, the highest level of sports competition. I'm Elizabeth Pearson, gar. And that's just one of the many stories Justin shared with me on this episode, what it's like to win an Olympic medal. Justin won his when he was a member of the 2008, USA men's gymnastics team. He was also a national champion in college. And he's now a college gymnastics coach. He recently moved from coaching the men's team at the University of Illinois, to assistant coaching the women's team at the University of Alabama. I'm just really grateful for you being here, Justin, and taking time to talk with me because I think you have such an interesting story and a great career. So thank you for your time.

Justin  1:21  

Thanks for inviting me, I appreciate it. And really impressed.

Elizabeth  1:25  

You know, I think anyone who did sports growing up or has kids who do sports knows the commitment and sacrifice and talent that it takes to succeed in sports. And for you to make it so far on the international level. It's just really impressive. And so I just want to commend you, and I'm kind of in awe of what you've achieved.

Justin  1:46  

Yeah, thanks. I appreciate the support. It's tough out here bulimic movement.

Elizabeth  1:52  

I'd love to kind of go back in time to kind of meet little young jest and like, did you have your sights set on becoming a real superstar Were you really competitive little guy and thought, like, I want to achieve or did everything just kind of build step by step.

Justin  2:07  

joke all the time, like, I don't remember a month ago, let alone when I was like eight. I remember, I for better for worse believes in pushing boundaries. I think when you're really young, that's usually mostly for worse. But I think as you get older, learning to push boundaries is a part of innovation and advancement. And that was something that I grew to really, really like, and kind of started to bring that into my sport worlds. The one vivid memory I do have as a kid was until this day, it really drives me crazy. I was called a show off in my neighborhood. And there was like this one defining moment that I had. And I'd never played this game called knockout. And then I played and I play aggressive like and I just I wanted to win. And I wanted to win, whether it was like the gymnastics competition I trained a year for, or if it's darts in the basement with a random person at a bar or whatever that like, I want to win. And I learned pretty young that generally, if you're really aggressive, and give everything that you can in games, you'll be most people because they're not. And so I remember winning that game. And they just were like, you're such a show off. And they were like mad. Because this this little fun game and everyone's front yard. I was just really, really aggressive

Elizabeth  3:20  

and committed. It sounds like

Justin  3:22  

and commit. Yeah. And I think that that really taught me a lesson because I hated it. I thought I did a good thing because I won. But then like all of these people that I wanted to be friends with, were like mad at me. And I just remember as a kid being like, that's a defining moment, I still remember of like, you can win. But there's a way to do it. There's a right way to win. Think there's enough egomaniacs out there that are at the top of the sports worlds that they're in. That was always kind of a guiding principles like you can win. But like the way that you win, and the way you portray yourself on your journey is incredibly important.

Elizabeth  3:56  

Very good point. And the higher you get up in your sport, the more more your jobs become 100%

Justin  4:02  

Yeah. So the point where that became, I trained my whole life to make an Olympic you know, like, my teachers, and anyone that hears your agendas throughout your entire childhood is like, oh, you're a gymnast? Are you going to go to the Olympics? And you know, your nine year old self was like, Yes, I am, like, you know, confident. when I really started training for the Olympics, which I would say is probably like my sophomore year in college, what I would say is what I finally really conceptualized what that meant, and what it took, and started to make commitments genuinely fully towards that goal. Like as a mature adult, and still had a lot of growing to do at that time in my life. I had this vision of doing it, but like being the guy that was relatable and not in a hole about it, for lack of a better way of putting it. I wanted to be the best and do it is just the friendly guy next door. I just that was really important to me, and I think it dates back to how bad I felt from playing aggressive and backyard sports to be honest with you Yeah, that's

Elizabeth  5:00  

so interesting. So growing up, you started gymnastics at a young age. And then did you play other sports? Also?

Justin  5:06  

I did. I played anything and everything around the neighborhood. organized sports was photographer while diving, swimming. I think it did baseball for a while. But that was it gymnastics kind of took the forefront of every available spare minute I had my life pretty early on. I'm sure anyone that does gymnastics knows

Elizabeth  5:22  

that. Did you just realize because you were so good at it. I think sometimes people like what they're good at, and they're good at what they like they can kind of meets in the middle. Is that what happened for you?

Justin  5:34  

Maybe. But I was pretty good at diving. I hated the cold water though. I think at some point, the family had so much sweat equity into gymnastics lessons that it's some point that is became what it was. But I to be honest with you, I look at gymnastics now. And I don't know why. Because it's the cumbersome, really difficult sport, like when you think about what it takes just to compete. I've got kids now. And you know, the first time we brought my kid to soccer game, it was after he'd had two practices that didn't even look like practice. And I played a game that weekend, and they had a blast. It was so fun. That was like this is why kids stay in soccer and other organized sports. You know what it takes to be competitive in gymnastics, it usually takes about three years of commitment three days a week, for like two hours a day. And then you might be ready to be the worst person in your first competition. Three years into it. You're just like,

Elizabeth  6:24  

what all the background training is. So there's just so much

Justin  6:27  

Yeah. And that's the behind the scenes, you know, I don't think you really realize, because you can play a garbage basketball game right off the gate. You're maybe terrible, but you can play it. It's say it was like the gymnastics foundation from strength and technique that has to develop before you can even think about going to your first meet. There's yours. There's yours. And that, to me, I think that now is why a major barrier to entry for getting kids in gymnastics competitively. I think a lot of other forms have popped up to keep them in gymnastics, playfully, recreationally, because I think everyone has been like, Oh, I did gymnastics once. And then they asked you to be on the team. And you were like, Sia, out of here year? Well, I

Elizabeth  7:08  

think also it kind of weeds itself out. I mean, for me, and my kids were sort of long limbs, long legs, not you know, I mean, we can't do the overs when kids are flipping over and do it. You know, I think certain body types are much more suited to it. But as little kids yeah, every kid is loving being in their little taught gymnastics class. And then you get a little older, and you can see those kids who are really suited to that sport.

Justin  7:34  

Yeah. And that was me, I was absolutely a very talented kid in gymnastics, I was the jerk that learned something and like one or two turns when the kid next to me had been working on that for months, and he was just like, paying it, Justin. So wow, for being a gymnast.

Elizabeth  7:49  

And you just kept wanting to be in the gym, it was never a pressuring from your parents.

Justin  7:54  

No, my parents were really good with that, despite having a father who was an astronaut, you know, like high achieving, the pressure wasn't there. It was always about doing what you love. And you know, they pushed academics really hard. I think for me, it was I found a place for my busy body and brain. And what I mean by that is, there's a never ending onslaught of problems to fix. And even now, as an adult, I fixate to fixing problems around the house. I'm a little manic in that way. And like gymnastics helps give my manic personality and something to do always, always, you're never done. The second you learn a new skill, it's like well connect it with something or add a twist to that skill or add a flip to that skill, or add a twist and a flip to like it just never ends. And that's to some people like a really daunting task. But for me, I kind of love the idea that you just continually advance through this crazy sport. There are no limits. And so like I just talked earlier about breaking down barriers, like that was my favorite thing is like, has anyone ever done this before? Maybe I could be the first. Sadly, I was the second person in the world to do triple double and floor but first person ever to compete a triple full on vaults for the United States. So I like I really like to push the difficulty stuff, which is probably why I got injured a lot. But that's what I loved about the sport. So I don't think I would have changed anything looking back.

Elizabeth  9:14  

So that's interesting. You said in college is when you kind of got this idea like oh, maybe the Olympics and it was a Olympics really the ultimate goal more than any other thing on the international stage, the ultimate achievement.

Justin  9:26  

Absolutely 100% Because of the sensationalism that we put around the Olympic movements. Funnily enough the World Championships that happen every other year that there's not in the Olympics, the World Championships are far more competitive. Oh, in fact, many of the greatest athletes in the world are not present at the Olympic games because he or she just had one bad routine at the Olympic qualifier because it's so selective because of how big it is, right? Only so many teams qualified to the Olympic Games was the World Championships. It's everyone else So you've got that one event specialist, that is like just a freak of nature on that event, and can be a world champion, he might have not been at the Olympic Games. Wow. The Olympic Games, however, is the gold standard for greatness. There are world champions that barely get a news blurb about them. And then if you win the Olympic gold medal, there's a big buzz, and but not even so anymore. I don't know, like, you get some media coverage, but doesn't really change your life and think that's where it gets tricky with a Olympic Movement sports because you're doing it to achieve this gold medal at the end of the road, hoping and thinking it'll change your life, you're going to be pretty disappointed.

Elizabeth  10:34  

Yeah, for most of you. Yeah. And you have to have some other drive. Because first of all, it's such an elusive goal to even make the team let alone win a medal, let alone a gold medal. And then what is that really going to do for you? I mean, we've heard a lot about Michael Phelps and everybody else that you can win it. And then there's a lot of depression that can set in and all that it has to do other internal motivation to want to succeed not just to earn a medal.

Justin  10:58  

Well, at least it was a career for Phelps, right? There's tons of gold medal winners that go home, they have their little mini parade in their small town, they get the key to the city, or they do an appearance at the library. And then it's like, man, time to get on LinkedIn and find out what you're going to do for the rest of your life. Oh, and by the way, you're 33 Now, and you just spent literally your entire life training for this thing. And you did it. You did it, you beat all the odds. You're the number one right and, and then that's it. And now. And now what it's it can be really hard it can be and I think there's a lot of there's books about this are journals and studies that like it really blows our minds up because they have this this thing but put on a pedestal thinking it's going to set them up for life. And like I did it. I want a medal for team USA. And it makes for a good story. That's yeah,

Elizabeth  11:43  

life goes on. Correct. So you had a really illustrious college career. I mean, you won NCAA championships. What was it like competing with your teammates? Yeah, because they're your teammates, but they're also your competitors.

Justin  11:59  

That's more so with the Olympic movement. And honestly, that's why I love college so much. There might be some entertain kind of like competitiveness, but like that was the one beauty about collegiate athletics is it's truly the only space that really exists. Where gymnastics exists as a team sport. You're in the gym with your 15 to 20. Other guys are women training for common goal. And it's about putting up the best lineup spots and all the events to have the biggest team score. You're competing for maybe lineup spots a little bit. But the more that you compete for those lineup spots, the better your team and so for me, it was my favorite forms to compete in to include the Olympics, competing at the Olympics was a nightmare, the pressure and the stage. You're never really ready for that epic moment you spent your again, your whole careers built up for this one competition. Yeah, a few minutes. And there you are. You know, it was my first time we were all Olympic rookies on that team. And that was heavy three, up three, count and BC that Olympics was like, largest viewership in the history of the Olympic games combined. And we're just like, oh, good to know.

Elizabeth  13:02  

They let you know that ahead of time,

Justin  13:04  

literally, as we're walking out into three, three count team finals. That was a comment from one of the camera I'll never forget, he said that. I remember I turned around and looked at one of the guys. And I was like, Well, that's good information right now. But we our team did a really good job at diffusing that nervous energy. But to finish your question about college athletics, the beauty of college athletics is for once you have a season, all your meats until then has been all about like getting to the next one, so that you can maybe make the national team. Whereas like college, it's about your record the wins and losses, every meat kind of matter. And there's some strategy there. And so I think it was fun to compete in that team setting, knowing that you're one routine, even if you had a mistake. We're still in this because this is a team challenge. It's a team battle. I felt more at ease, knowing that this was a team effort. Even though that most of my career, I had a lot of the team on my back being one of the better athletes, I still am more comfortable and kind of diffusing that responsibility like team every year people I know shares. I'm just yeah, you know, and ironically, some people that is way harder for them, it crushes their mental game knowing that I'm fine if I screw up because it just affects me. But if I screw up and now it hurts the team, that extra weight really. So it's funny, the same situation just flipped the other way and it's really hard for others whereas I really thrived in love that competitive environment.

Elizabeth  14:25  

Did you have some of that mental training in college did that start at a younger age if someone helping you with a psychological training did sports psychology?

Justin  14:35  

Yeah, sports psychology and everyone's got there's so many plans and methods out there but a lot of them are rooted in the same concepts. And a lot of it is you get out of it what you put into it. I always prided myself on being a good competitor, but at the same time I was someone who if this is gonna give me competitive edge, why wouldn't I try this? Not the same approach with steroids or something like that but like yeah, right methodologies, right. So I was like, Yeah, let's do this. And where I really found it to be most helpful was through all of my surgeries. So I had nine orthopedic surgeries. Oh, wow. And they all happen in the final five years of my training. So that was like almost every year from oh five leading up to the Olympic Games, I had a surgery or two,

Elizabeth  15:16  

can you name some of them? Was it like shoulder and knee or what was

Justin  15:20  

a little bit everything, Elizabeth,

Elizabeth  15:23  

you're a gymnast, so everything is affected.

Justin  15:26  

So I tore my ACL, almost exactly one calendar year out from the Olympic Games, doing the bulk that was kind of not ever been really done. So shoulder surgery at labrum tear three ankle surgeries on each ankle. So that was six of them. Two of which were after the Olympics, I competed at the Olympic Games with the torn soundswitch ligament on my ankle. That's a whole nother story. So that that was not

Elizabeth  15:47  

fun. I didn't know you competed inch. So

Justin  15:51  

it was just constantly coming back. And finally getting back to where you were or even better. And then bam, oh, under the knife again. And let's start over. So that was really the big moment where I think mental training became an absolute necessity. For me. I used it for sports performance and enhancement, but it really drugged me out of a pretty dark place, actually, with the ACL to My instant reaction when I tore my ACL is just like another injury can't wait to come back and be the comeback kid. But then I think where it really starts to hit you is as you start that super slow rehab process. Because the first part of doing an ACL recovery is like your inch warming your knee, right. So you know, you're like, alright, the Olympic trials is in like 10 months. And here I am doing Yeah, like you're just inching your knee and live, you're watching the clock 200%. And I just come off my labrum surgery, which is a really long recovery for me, and then two ankle surgeries. Wow. So it was like, it just came back from those back in shape. Oh seven was going to be the year I'm gonna be like, tune up, get ready for the Olympics, and show that I'm like, gonna be the guy for this Olympic team. And then bam, tear my ACL. So that was a really rough spot. And that's where I turn to kind of getting a mental training of honestly being psyched up for my rehab. So like I had, like a mental training program that I used to start my rehab for my knee, you know, going through the motions versus attacking your recovery plan makes a big difference in how fast you're able to come back. And so actually, that worked tremendously. Well, I was able to kind of see myself with the Olympics and see where I want it to be and tie that into how this is the first step of like, 30 of my recovery process that I would get site, I would just get super amped to do my rehab. And like kind of felt like I was on this mission. Like on my own little rocky training montage that you've seen in every fighting movie in the history of movies, I kind of became the hero of my own story. And this is me, like starting my comeback. But the mental training, put me in that space, to be really excited about that. Rather than being like, I'm here again to do these stupid little motions that this person is making me go through. You know, you just it's hard.

Elizabeth  17:55  

And why that attitude. Yeah. So anytime you would get into the bad attitude, you would just flip your brain and say, No, I'm the hero of my own story. And yeah, there was a program.

Justin  18:07  

I had like a eight minute. I don't say meditation, because it wasn't, it was like, you walk through your steps,

Elizabeth  18:13  

a thought process. Yeah, I mean, that's a really great thing, especially for something like that. But almost for any part of our lives, you know, any day that you're sort of letting your mind go down some path, seeing the negative in life, and you can kind of switch and see the positive stuff and said yours was incredibly dramatic, and had major consequences at the end. But we could do that anytime of life.

Justin  18:36  

Sometimes you need to pick up for anything in the day. Yeah, I remember walking in feeling on top of the world ready to like just dominate my rehabilitation workouts. And that was really important, because it's so easy to get lost there. So it was very helpful. And so we have a plan to try to build that for daily training because the monotony of training can be tough, and you're always dealing with minor aches and pains and setbacks. And so kind of maintaining that focus. And that level of intensity in your workouts is really important to becoming your best. They can't just rely on coach to pick you up every day in which we want to be the positive coaches in people's lives, but at the same time, a self driven athlete that's on a mission and hungry for what they want like as unstoppable. They're gonna have a good year.

Elizabeth  19:22  

So what happened? You went through that recovery process and how many months did you have to get physically back in shape before the Olympic trials.

Justin  19:30  

So funny enough, I got back really early. I got back through in the all around almost in like seven months and went out to the Olympic Training Center to do my first all around competition and tune up first event. I'm finishing my floor routine. And I learned short on a double flipping pass of full twisting double back and I land kind of like my legs felt like a duck. At the time. I had no idea that I just sprained my ankle, but I actually tore my deltoid ligament on the inside of my ankle. Oh my gosh and The timeline again, with the Olympic trials right around the corner. We didn't get an MRI, we just assumed it was a sprain. They shipped me down to Texas, USA Gymnastics to get this, like MRT treatment to aggressively get the swelling out. And it really helped. And I got right back to work. But floor and vault really didn't come back. I was not able to do floor, I just couldn't get hurt so bad. I tore my right ACL. And then my left ankle still really is messed up something so wrong, right. And I'm just like the Olympics. Again, that timeline is just building its building. And so my coach comes up with the idea. And this is like two weeks out, I basically had selected slash ushered through to the Olympic trials after doing only four events at USA championships, which was considered half of the Olympic trial process.

Elizabeth  20:47  

And that's just because you had proven yourself didn't do floor, which was one of my best events. But they knew that you were such a strong,

Justin  20:54  

I proved myself on other events. Okay, yeah. So as a change of pace, my code says, Hey, let's go out to the Olympic Training Center, get with the national team change of environment, because we're just getting super frustrated. And we'll just kind of make a final push out there. Before we head out to the Olympic trials. I was like, That's a great idea. I love that place. Even though that's where I hurt my ankle. And this was it. This is the moment. And so I go out there and I'm doing a crazy amount of tumbling on a mangled left ankle and kind of coming back on my right knee. Preexisting Condition. I have so two herniated discs in my back. And so when you're favoring a left ankle and a right knee back, your back starts to really it was not good. And so darkest moment of my entire career. I wake up after a hard push on Florin vaults, and the dorms at that point were like a barracks at night. I'm trying to go, you know, that's the thought of it. And I'm like, huh, my legs are asleep. Like this is odd. pull myself back up, and I get out of bed again. I'm like trying to shake them awake and thought about again. And that's what I like had like, my ultimate darkest moment of my career was my legs, motor function. artworking panic, I commando crawl down the hall to my coach, and was like, we got a problem here. Something's very wrong. Yeah. And so that was two weeks before the Olympic trials.

Elizabeth  22:10  

What was it where you're just just pressing on a nerve or something? Correct. I had done

Justin  22:15  

so much landing in the wrong position favoring my two lower extremities that I basically really pushed those this bad into like the motor and it's never happened since. Funny enough. I'm going to get a cortisone injection tomorrow from my back, because it's still out of all the surgeries is the one thing that bothers me everyday still.

Elizabeth  22:33  

Oh my gosh, that must have been so scary. And that was so close to the Olympics, right? I cannot believe you competed and competed so brilliantly, then that is incredible. That's

Justin  22:45  

the weird. That's the end of the story. Yeah, they threw me on a ton of muscle relaxers to get everything to calm down. I basically did nothing the seven or eight days, that first part of those two weeks, and then shipped out to the trials and started feeling better. And I ran into one of the selection committee members and saying, Hey, I don't know you heard my story, not really prepared to do a floor routine. And he was like, you just don't really fit the team without your floor. That's one of your best events. And that was in an elevator and I changed the Florida to my coach's room. After that one comment. I said, Hey, we're doing Florida model. We have to try a routine. I did it with a watered down dismount, but it was good enough. I think I placed second that they won. And so it was actually a bad finish. And people in the audience. They were like, that was like a rough ending. But to me, that was like the greatest moment of my gymnastics career was finishing that 14 Day one of the Olympic trials, because you did it and no one understood that except for me and my coach. Most people were probably like, Oh, that was a terrible dismount. And I'm like, I made it.

Elizabeth  23:42  

I made it all that backstory. Yeah, you

Justin  23:46  

do that. So that was a wild ride. Yeah.

Elizabeth  23:49  

Wow. And then how long between the trials and going off to the Olympics,

Justin  23:54  

a long time actually back in oh eight. It was like six weeks, it was a long time, there was a huge window that year to recover. And they did that. So I think that you could manage your training cycle to kind of recover, come down off your training cycle and then try to peak in the Olympics, which for me, was fantastic at that time because we're still trying to figure out what the heck was going on with my ankle.

Elizabeth  24:15  

So then you got to kind of rehab a little bit then in that period of time, and by the time you went off to the Olympics. Lots of hey, so I

Justin  24:25  

never got fixed. I had two surgeries after the Olympics to to actually repair my ankle. And at the Olympics. We just taped it up like a lot. A lot of naproxen sodium or Aleve or whatever want to call it and heavy heavy heavy tape jobs and they put me in on floor in three up three count like I did floor for our team finals. That was a moment. I was like guys, I'm normally the guy that's like I can handle everything but I've done like a handful of floor teams and my ankles and they were just like you got it that guy and I was like oh my god. All right, I guess I guess I do.

Elizabeth  24:55  

So is that another mental game that you played with yourself? Like I got As my ankle is not hurting, back is fine. How do you prepare yourself for those moments?

Justin  25:07  

So I think our team was really unique in the way that we approached our Olympic game. So our team originally had Paul and Morgan Hamm on the team, who had both been to two Olympics before then. And Paul, at that time was the reigning Olympic all around gold medalist from oh four. So having him on your team, pretty good. You wanted those guys in your team because of their experience, and they've just proven themselves. They're both world and Olympic medalists. This is awesome. And so through injury, both of them ended up withdrawing from the team Morgan. Actually, he didn't withdraw from the team. He was told he needed to show competitive readiness in the last training session before team prelims while in Beijing and couldn't so like in comes our second alternate 


Yeah, so that was crazy. And so it kind of became a story of like, I dare something else to go wrong with this, because we all kind of had our own like comeback story journeys, and the team itself had this resilience piece of losing Paul. Like I first alternate then we leave for Beijing lose Morgan right for compete in come Sasha like Sasha Artem I've literally moved into the Olympic village, the day before we competed team prelims. Wow. But he was in the auxiliary site, because you're not allowed in the Olympic Village until they're officially on the team. So he just moved in. And we were just like, hey, man, haven't seen you in like, two weeks, you ready to compete at the Olympics tomorrow? Wild, this one of mine, and

Elizabeth  26:30  

he was in China. Correct? We still weren't just flying him in?

Justin  26:33  

No, that would have been even crazier, but you have to anticipate injuries which are mastic. So he was there training with our two other alternates, and Sasha got the pick. So our team model just kind of became like, Bring it on, like crazy, you know, and started to really embrace the up and down journey that the team was going on, or that we were going on ourselves and kind of mocked the pressure of the Meet anything we could do to defuse how intense that moment is. It's, it's a big moment, like everyone copes and deals with it in a different way. And we are kind of a goofy team that likes to make fun of ourselves and make fun of the intensity and pressure that felt like it was boiling over for us. And I think it worked. We competed really well. I had great meat and one of the unsuspecting bronze medals, so that was really cool. first medal, I think won by Olympic rookies.

Elizabeth  27:18  

It was incredible. You were not expected to get on the podium.

Justin  27:23  

But when you lose Paul, the reigning Olympic champ and then you lose the only other Olympic experience on the team Morgan, who's a world medalist and you know, and had been the face of USA Gymnastics for literally eight years. The media was like this team will be lucky to make finals, let alone win a medal like winning a medal. There's no chance. And funnily enough, I think that all of that made it all a little bit easier to compete because I think the hardest thing to do and I think we saw this a little bit with Simone Biles is compete with unbelievable expectation to be the best at pressure. Yeah, and so our team if nothing else, didn't have any of that pressure. No one expected us to do anything remarkable or credible, right? Even barely make team finals. Like we don't even want to cover them. I still remember NBC being like, you guys are doing so good. We're actually gonna start covering like in the meat because like they just everyone like counted us out. So we like we had something to prove to ourselves but felt like no one else really cared. I think that helped. There was just no expectation or performance expectations a pretty heavy thing.

Elizabeth  28:26  

Yeah, where are you set the bar? And you still want to set it high for you guys? I mean, literally the bar I guess that's gymnastics.

Justin  28:34  

The metal very high bar,

Elizabeth  28:36  

that literal bar.

Justin  28:38  

The literal high bar. Yeah,

Elizabeth  28:39  

you performed great there. I mean, I guess you just worked through all your injuries and you did so well. Do you remember how it felt to finish your various routines and stick a landing and can you bottle that feeling?

Justin  28:53  

I have one of the better means of my career at the Olympic trials and honestly at the Olympics, but again, I think it came down to I didn't go into this like I trained my entire life. This is my moment. Everything's perfect. It's ready to go. It's set up do just don't blow it just this is it. There was more like I rolled off an emergency ER visit two weeks ago. I can't even believe I'm here right now. Like, let's just see what at like, let's just send it Let's go baby. That's a very different attitude to have at the Olympic trials because again, like so many people put their entire lives to converge at this competition to make this Olympic team and whether it's expectation from their families and coaches in their communities or on themselves. I was just like man, I'm just happy I'm not on bed rest like I was 10 days ago. So like I felt like again like I had nothing to lose and probably had back to back to the best meats I've had my entire life at the Olympic trials because of that.

Elizabeth  29:47  

It's a weird like blessing in disguise. You know, you don't want to get injured but in a way it it did kind of reset things for you.

Justin  29:54  

Yeah, it's funny you see that happen in athletes now and as a coach for the last 15 years You see a lot of athletes do that every time you get to postseason. Everyone, all of a sudden has just like this thing that's kind of bothering them. Like, Hey, Coach, just want to let you know, like, shoulders been really acting up today, really, like you've never had a shoulder issue in your entire life. You know, like, there's a gag, but but like, I'm good. I just, I just kind of like, I'll work through like, work good. And it's almost just kind of that, like, get out of jail. Like just in case I mess up. There's a reason it's the bottom shoulder. Yeah. And like, I get that it's their way of trying to like diffuse that, like, I know, I'm expected to hit and be perfect. And I've got one chance and one chance only to do it for us in the team. That's a lot of pressure. But like, Man, if I mess up, and then it's not my fault, because I was hurting, that would be better than if I just messed up because I messed on. And so you see that a lot. And I get it because it's intense. You get one chance, one chance only to this incredibly difficult thing. And it's supposed to be perfect. Yeah, man, that's brutal.

Elizabeth  30:56  

Yeah. And you're literally getting judged. Yeah, literally judges giving you numbers about how perfect or how imperfect you are being from the perfect mark. Correct.

Justin  31:07  

And you live that day in day out basically, from your coach, like, telling you where your deductions are, you have to be very mindful of that, because coaching can become very negative and a judge sport like that, where your job is to highlight the areas we need to fix. And as you do that, you need to know what the deductions are. And so it kind of lends itself to always identifying your faults, failures and problem areas, in that that is not a positive environment. So you need to find ways to be a better, more positive coach and to still work on all the things that need to be worked on. So it's a challenge, Olympic sports are tough. Gymnastics, specifically, is very challenging in that way.

Elizabeth  31:45  

I wanted to ask a little bit about the Olympic experience when you were there, I assume before your events, was it kind of intense just living in the Olympic village and all that. And then afterwards, was it sort of fun?

Justin  31:58  

I think you get a very different answer. If you ask a men's gymnasts versus a women's gymnast, first of all, but at least certainly back then, for us peeking as a male gymnast in your early mid to late 20s. We're all kind of grown adults. And so there's a little bit more freedom and ownership given into our training process, at least from my observations at that time. And so when we got there, it was a blast. Honestly, we had our training. And then rather than sitting in the gym, or the the Olympic village and going stir crazy, we went out, we were at the stock market, we all went bartered for custom made suits and shirts, and like we were enjoying ourselves, because the last thing you want to do is just sit and stare at a blank wall and be like, okay, 14 hours and 13 minutes until I have to perform at the Olympics. You know, like, that's great. That's not healthy. Yeah, so we did a lot of things together. And actually, our team is still incredibly close. We have a group thread, we chat, often from birthday wishes to life moments, and we go to each other's weddings are actually very, very close. Team still. And so that was amazing. You know, we buckled down and got real serious with a couple days before making sure you're covering your rest of recovery things. But it was amazing in China and what I've heard of others that have been so many other Olympics like the Beijing, China Olympics was one of the greatest Olympics ever put on in the modern day Olympic movement. My family was in town, and my girlfriend, who's now my wife. So like, I spent a lot of time with him and the team exploring the city and just kind of celebrating an unexpected metal win. But it was great. We just kind of bombed again, there's this overlying pressure that just everyone carries when they're at the Olympics and focus. And then as the event started to close, you would feel the energy swing, like 10 days into being there, you could tell athletes were starting to finish. And it was starting to become the celebration and party scene that you've probably read and heard about. And we absolutely took part in that we we won a medal, you know, and you dedicated your entire life. And so yeah, we're all grown ups and adults, and we went out and celebrated. So it was it was a lot of fun.

Elizabeth  34:06  

So that fact of getting third place as opposed to fourth place really makes a big difference, doesn't it? It seems like yours. That's what we're getting, you know, you got on the podium. That's incredible. But I just sometimes think about for the athletes like it's just so great to be there. It's so impressive to get fourth if you get 10 I think it's all pretty great. But I wonder if you got that many more accolades. You know, is it that much more satisfying that you actually have

Justin  34:33  

but you know, the country we live in the United States,

Elizabeth  34:36  

I started out

Justin  34:38  

you know, the first question is you were in the Olympics. Did you win a gold medal? I actually can't even tell you how many times I've been introduced and speaking engagements 2008 Olympic gold medalist Justin spring and I'll walk out on the stage and the first thing I have to do, which is not what you want to do when you're starting to speak, is tear down your own introduction. You're like, well, as much as I want to let let that go. I am not a gold medalist is a bronze medal if you hold the light gold, but only got third place like Sorry, but anyway on to my speech Oh yeah, so yeah. And I'm totally fine with that right again, I think because I was just happy to be there. And so like getting third was icing on the cake. And then some for us, especially with our team's journey of losing Paul and Morgan. And it's only been three meddling teams and men's Olympic US history. Wow, you have the gold medal team from 84. Yeah, you have the silver team from oh four. And then you have the bronze team from Oh, wait, that's it. We're not like the women who've won like every year.

Elizabeth  35:39  

Yeah, yeah. So I'm curious about that. I kind of like to go a little bit into your coaching career too, because I know that you started coaching men's gymnastics, and now you're coaching women's college gymnastics has happened. I'm curious about kind of the state of men's gymnastics in the US or maybe it's worldwide and it's women's gymnastics just so much more popular than men's? Are. Can you speak a little bit to that? And speak

Justin  36:05  

a lot to that? Yeah, worldwide, I think it's fairly unchanged. I think what's happening in the United States, as you're seeing the NCAA model, have a complete paradigm shift. College athletics. 4050 years ago, there were all intramural sports, that money wasn't tied into this whole thing. And now that's like a laughable statement. Because college athletics is big, big business. And unlike in professional sports, when you have recruiting tethered to be coming and staying the best, what you have to do if you want to pack your stands, and remain a winning championship team, in the sports that matter, which is football and basketball, you have to invest insane amounts of money, time, energy, and money and money and money into those sports and recruiting as a big piece of that making sure you continue to get the best players so that you continue to win. So you continue to be the best and drive, fan engagement TV contracts that keep this whole thing afloat. And so as that has happened, that in combination with Title Nine, saying that the money that you spend on women must be comparable and equal to what you spend on the men. And so as the money spent on men has gone absolutely through the roof on the sports that drive the whole industry, you have to spend the equivalent amount on dollars and opportunities for women's sports, great intent, and it's done incredible things for women athletes, from essentially being non existent in the 60s and 70s, to now that it's vibrant industry. And it's awesome, the opportunities are great. But the repercussions. The unintended consequences of Title Nine is that it has decimated men's Olympic sports in college, and men's gym is currently hanging on by a thread with 14 programs left

Elizabeth  37:50  

for 14 nationwide. In college. I had no idea it was so paltry. That's it is that? Are you talking Deewan?

Justin  38:00  

No, that's all of them. We can dial back spending on football or basketball. Or if we want to spend more there, then we could add a women's sports. Or we could do what we want with basketball and football and put them in the right position. And we can just cut a men's sport. And that's exactly what many programs did. So it's not good. And the problem with that is, is they're all Olympic drivers. Four out of the six guys in my Olympic team came directly from a college program like I did, I trained at the University of Illinois. The reason I made the Olympics was because of the University of Illinois, and my training environment there and my coaching and support from there. And so that's why it's not good.

Elizabeth  38:37  

So it's pretty much the entire pipeline is going to dry up. There's no incentive really, for boys who really love gymnastics, they're not going to have college scholarships to look forward to and then an Olympics to go forward to

Justin  38:49  

the problem. That's the real carrot at the end of the stare. Just that chance to compete in college is so many athletes desire and goal and dream. You know, the Olympics is five spots every four years like that's crazy for most people. But making a college team is not that's very attainable, or it has been. And yet it's absolutely getting almost impossible now. So that's why I say internationally, it hasn't changed much because we're the only place whose Olympic driver in the huddle has been completely intertwined with NCAA collegiate model.

Elizabeth  39:21  

So this explains what you were saying the difference in the Olympics, the USA men's versus USA women's. I mean, no wonder we haven't had any medalists since oh eight. It's just drying up.

Justin  39:32  

I think that's a big piece. And as that's drying up, you've got other countries and I think there's another thing that the Olympic Movement people don't realize is that almost every Olympic athlete is a volunteer. Unless you're on Michael Phelps after oh eight and you're training for 12 You don't get paid to do this. I got a full time job. I was the assistant coach at the University of Illinois, and my side hustle was training to be one of the best in the world at one of the hardest sports in the world and make an Olympic team That is the story for almost every Olympic athlete out there. They're living in their parents basements. The local car shop is giving them a $10,000 training stipend like the gyms are just cutting them some slack, not charging them to train there because they bring some prestige but like most people don't make any money with this. And they put their entire lives on hold to train to help win. Team America a couple of medals. We're a team of volunteers straight up, except for the elite Elite elite one to 2% that are multiple, multiple multiple time Olympic gold medal winners in the right sport.

Elizabeth  40:34  

The marquee sports that get a lot of notice I call him was an Olympic gold medalist and he didn't get that same kind of Simone Biles attention or no or any of those girls any of nothing. Many names from all the past Olympics Kerri Strug, and the

Justin  40:49  

women the women all around, they become like America sweetheart, ever since Mary Lou Retton? That's right. Yeah, exactly. So yeah, it's interesting what gains popularity and support and can be pushed into a career and what can't I mean, I guess in some ways, I guess I leveraged my Olympic journey into a career, that two years of assistant coaching experience under my belt and they gave me the head coaching position at the University Illinois.

Elizabeth  41:12  

Coaching seems like an awesome place to land. Has that been super fulfilling for you?

Justin  41:17  

It is in specifically college coaching. Yes. To be honest with you, that might be the most life changing thing that ever happened to me because I made the Olympics. I said my whole life, I wanted to be a teacher, and then found out that coaching is essentially teaching with a better salary, and uses my technical Mitch, don't get me started on that we should triple our teacher salaries.

Elizabeth  41:38  

I'm sure you had a lot of influential coaches through your years and did some of them

Justin  41:42  

and good and bad ways. Oh, yeah. And I think you learn and develop your coaching style like that, you know, one of the first things I learned was, I think I'm just very self aware and good at picking up other people's energy or contentment. And like, I think that's a big part of knowing when and how to push someone is such a huge piece of being a good coach, great athletes need to be pushed in the right ways to become their best. But you can break someone by pushing someone at the wrong time or too aggressively. And I think that's where you get into coaching is abusive, and you know, so like knowing how to make someone their best. And knowing how to push someone, the right way, I think is so much of what coaching entails. And very little of that has anything to do with the technical logic of the sport. It's about being able to read people and understand what they want and listening to them. And then using what they tell you about what they want in this process and getting to know them, and then knowing how to get them to become their best. So that was the first lesson I learned was like, using myself as an example. And one of my guys was like, Yeah, I know that you can do that really easily. But that doesn't really help me. And instead of being like, Well, I was just, you know, showing you as a visual example. It was like, that was a profound statement. Right? They're like, yeah, that was worthless for you. And probably just made them feel terrible. That's overtired coach and get up and do that probably made them feel this big. need that. And so, lesson number one early coach, like don't ever use myself as an example. Because his journey, his experience, his struggle, is not mine, and probably doesn't see it as even if it felt identical. He probably doesn't feel like it's identical. He or she shouldn't say they're all going through their own experiences. And so you need to meet them where they're at, which is kind of a big thing that we say a lot now.

Elizabeth  43:21  

Are there differences now coaching men and coaching women?

Justin  43:24  

No, it's identical. I'm just kidding. Of course, there's unbelievable differences, but not as profound. I was very, very nervous and making this shift. I was tremendously nervous. Every time I've ever walked into a gym as a coach, I'd known every athlete very, very, very well, because I came from the team that I started coaching in and worked up through the ranks. So like that alone, of just making the shift of walking into a gym of 18 complete strangers that I've never met before, kind of freaks me out. And now I'm supposed to be their coach. But it was also 18 women, and I have never coached a woman athlete in my entire life. And really, honestly, a little bit of how to process emotion I think has been a little different men, generally, and I don't want to stereotype 100% But like men generally get their frustration out by banging their head against something or hitting something or an inappropriate declamatory remark at the top of their lungs. Whereas I found women kind of get it out sometimes through just kind of overwhelming, a little bit of tears. But then everyone really engages the same way. This team that I'm working with now is unbelievably resilient. incredibly hardworking, very coachable. I've only been here for two months and I feel like I'm I'm actually exactly where maybe I'm supposed to be all my life. I'm trying to figure out why I leave practices feeling more fulfilled, and I don't know that it's the sport, the gender this team versus my team. I'm still I don't think I have enough experience but I am leaving feeling more like I'm making a bigger difference. And I don't Don't know why. Fantastic, a little bit might be men's to women's gymnastics, it's a completely different coat of points. Whereas there's a 10 Oh cap and women's gymnastics, men's gymnastics and college is the Olympic codepoints, which is open ended. There's an endless amount of difficulty you can continue to add to your routine, which in itself, if you think about it is unrelenting and completely exhausting. At no point in any of my athletes careers ever. Are we content happy and feeling successful? Like we have a routine? That is the final routine and we can celebrate that it's like a second you learn something new. For a male gymnast. It's like, okay, can we upgrade that? Can we add a twist? We add a flip? Can we make it harder? Wow. Right?

Elizabeth  45:42  

It's like saying, I just want you to live up to your potential. And you're like, Well, what's my potential, it's infinite, I guess it is ever going.

Justin  45:51  

That is exhausting as a coach, to know that every moment in your coaching career, every one of your athletes still has an endless amount to improve, get better and get better and improve on and get better and improve on and get better every day, day in and day out. So it's never like a win moment, almost. There's no end, we had an athlete learn a new vault, that is the time to start value. Like I literally I got teary eyed, I was so excited. And that's all we need. And now we perfect it, we make it better. But like, we got this big thing. And it was such a celebration moment. Those wins are so hard to find in men's gymnastics because of how unrelenting it is this pursuit of the higher start value always.

Elizabeth  46:29  

I think that's a really profound observation. And mentally, it's like a different game. For men and women.

Justin  46:37  

It's a totally different game. I think it's a reason that popularity is surging and women's gymnastics. These win moments happen all the time with tempo, and hit routines, where you see falling all over the place in collegiate men's gymnastics, because you got good gymnast trying to Olympic level gymnastics, to try to be the best. But it's also like, you got a 14, eight. Everyone in the stands is like diehard fans, you're like that was great. But like you're trying to build new fan viewership. And they don't know.

Elizabeth  47:09  

And that's the thing. It was amazing. I was impressed with what happened down there.

Justin  47:13  

And then after two and a half hours of a meet, there's one win moments in the men's gymnastics meet where I think women have done a really good job. There's a lot of winning moments throughout their competitions that you sensationalized and make big and that's exciting. And they're killing it. TV coverage is through the roof. And fans are packing in the doors. And it's great. They figured out a model that's quick, heavy, hitting fast paced, light hearted. And it's a show that plays to what people want to see at a sporting event, a show.

Elizabeth  47:42  

This has been so fun and interesting. I've learned so much from men's and women's gymnastics, and I love the behind the scenes about the Olympics. I'm a huge Olympics fan have watched every Olympics my whole life. So thank you for sharing all of that.

Justin  47:58  

Thanks for being a fan that somehow that supported my ability to do what I did. So thank you.

Elizabeth  48:03  

Thanks a lot, Justin. I appreciate your time and just being so open with me. Thank you.

Justin  48:09  

Thanks, Elizabeth. Thanks for having me on. Appreciate it.

Elizabeth  48:13  

It's pretty easy to see why Justin is such a successful coach, isn't it? He's full of motivation, encouragement, and obviously experience. Here are some of my takeaways from our conversation. Number one, be intentional about your goals and why you're pursuing them to embrace the journey you're on, even when it's up and down at times. Three, facing something daunting. become the hero of your own story. Visualize each step of the way, including the ending, picture yourself victorious. Four. A key to being a great coach or a great friend is listening to people and trying to understand what they want and need. Five, expectations can be punishing. Imagine what could happen if you freed yourself and others from them. Six, something that seems mediocre to others may be the most impressive thing in your life. Other people's opinions don't matter, only you know your whole story. And finally, number seven, take the wins when and where you find them. Celebrate them. And by the way, you do not have to get or be a perfect 10 to be a winner. My big thanks to Justin for giving me this insider's look into the Olympic experience and for teaching me so much about collegiate gymnastics. If you'd like to learn more about Justin, go to the show notes for this episode on our website. What it's like to dotnet you can also find all of our past episodes there. If you're like me and you love the Olympics, you might want to listen to episode 12 with Jeff cable. He's photographed After the Olympics since 2010. And if you like hearing from star athletes, check out episode 38 with former NFL quarterback Jake locker. If you're enjoying this podcast, please tell a few friends about it. And if you want to support us scroll down to the bottom of the show notes page and click on the link that says support the show. I'm Elizabeth Pearson. Gar thanks for being curious about what it's like.