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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Beating the odds

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Despite severe hearing loss, SLHS's Spielman shines on basketall court, track

Storm Lake High basketball and track standout Alex Spielman insists on making his own breaks.

Maybe that's because he isn't used to getting many good ones, and because he was dealt a stacked deck of cards early in his life that would have crippled the will of other youngsters

At the age of five, Spielman was diagnosed with spinal meningitis, which can be fatal.

"It's the type of illness where most people go into a coma and they either come out of it or they don't," said Alex's mom Jan. "Alex was comatose for about a day and then started coming out of it."

Alex survived, but lost most of his hearing in both ears. Over the next five years, he lost any hearing that he had and was completely deaf.

At the age of ten, Alex began using a special hearing aid - a cochlear implant - that gave him back some of his hearing.

Still, he isn't on an even playing field in the classroom or in sports. He has to rely on lip reading and visual cues in school, his mother said.

"And the teachers have been good about making a few adjustments, like using an overhead projector or giving Alex notes before the class," Jan Spielman said.

She added that a typical school day for her 17-year-old son "is exhausting for him," but that through toughness and determination, he gets by.

"Alex has a very strong will," his mom said. "He gives 100 percent of what he's got every day. I can't imagine how difficult it must be."

With disabilities like hearing loss or blindness, people sometimes develop a sharpening of other senses or find other ways to compensate for what they lack.

"I've tried putting on the mute button on the TV to see if I could figure out what was going on, and I didn't get very far," she said. "But when we watch something, Alex has no problem figuring out what's happening."

Alex credits his parents for getting him through the tough days.

"My mom and dad have helped me the most," he said. "When I was younger I'd get upset because I couldn't understand a TV show or movie. Now, I just realize that I have this disability and I have to accept it and move on."

That's exactly what he's done in sports during his sophomore year and now as a junior.

Spielman nailed down a starting job on the Tornado basketball team five games into the 2004-2005 season.

According to Alex, at the start of that sophomore season, then-coach Jeff Brennan told Spielman he would get the starting job at point guard, but only if he earned it.

"He didn't want anything handed to him," Brennan remembered. "He wanted to earn that starting position and he did."

Brennan added that with noise in the gym, it was difficult for Alex to hear the coach yelling in plays from the bench.

"We just went to a system where we used colored cards for various offenses or defenses," Brennan said. "Eventually, we found that it worked better for the other players as well."

Alex averaged about four points per game his sophomore season, but this past year, averaged 13 points per game, 3.2 assists per game and over two steals per game. He also shot 36 percent from beyond the arc. He was an All-Lakes Conference pick and first team all-area.

"He's a very hard-nosed kid who sees the floor well," said Bob Grant, who coached the Tornadoes this past winter season. "Alex is a tenacious defensive player, and we're looking for big things from him next year."

Meanwhile, if Alex has a disability, he is also a gifted natural athlete.

His dad Jeff was the head men's basketball coach at Buena Vista University when Alex and his older brother A.J. were youngsters.

"We'd be at the gym with my dad two or three days a week," Alex said. "We were always around the game and I think that helped."

A.J., four years older than Alex, started at guard for two years for the Tornadoes and was a starter this season as a junior for Grandview College in Des Moines.

Alex said Sunday night a number of college basketball coaches have sent him literature, but he says he'll know more about his future plans after this summer.

In June and July, Alex will be playing with the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association's Select 17 all-star team.

An elite group of seniors-to-be, the team will play a number of tournaments in the tri-state region, and a national tournament July 22-24 in Las Vegas.

"There will be some college coaches and scouts at the tournaments," Spielman said.

This spring, Alex is busy after class with track and field. He and Logan Masters are two of the top 110 high hurdlers in the state. Both competed at the Drake Relays last week.

"Alex ran Thursday in our invitational meet and we didn't get to Des Moines until around midnight," Brennan said. "He and Logan had to get up at six Friday morning and compete at 8. Those aren't the best circumstances to run in."

Brennan added that Alex felt he ran poorly in the 110 high hurdles, even though he finished ninth and missed the all-class, elite field finals by a hundredth of a second.

"One thing about Alex," Brennan said. "No one is harder on himself than he is."

Alex also is the Tornadoes best and most consistent long jumper, with a personal record leap of 20 feet, 10 inches. He took eighth at state in Class 3A last year with a leap of 20 feet, 2.75 inches.

In the long jump, Alex's hearing disability doesn't come into play, Brennan said. It does in the 110 high hurdles and the 4x100 relay.

"Alex can't hear the (starting) gun go off if it's a windy day," Brennan said. "So sometimes he has to get out of the blocks based on watching when the other runners take off."

Added Alex: "I'm usually the last guy to the first hurdle, but I can make up the time during the race."

Spielman set a personal record in the 110 highs of 14.52. He competed in both events at the state meet last May,

"We set a school record for points in a meet this season and the last time that happened, Storm Lake (High) won the state (track and field) meet," Alex said. That was four years ago when his brother was a junior.

Meanwhile, at just 17 years of age, time and technology are on Alex's side.

His mother said Sunday night that Alex is currently being tested for a cochlear implant in his other ear.

"Alex has come a long way," Jan Spielman said. "He's tough and determined, and those are the main reasons he's been successful."

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