IM this article to a friend!

May 11, 2007

Hurdler takes sound advice, runs with it

From: - Des Moines,IA,USA - May 11, 2007

A cochlear implant tells Ballard of Huxley sprinter when to leap from the blocks, but he's been clearing obstacles his whole life.


Huxley, Ia. - Alex Spielman's electronic earpiece helped open his deaf world to sound and to the chance to be a three-sport athlete.

Yet he seems to refuse to hear one word - "can't."

Spielman, a senior hurdler at Ballard of Huxley, will run at a district track meet at Nevada today. He will crouch in a starting position and listen for the starter's pistol. He will hear it through a cochlear implant that relays information to his auditory nerve.

He aims for next week's state meet, hoping to improve on last season's fifth-place finish in the high hurdles. Determination has carried him to sports success.

"All my life I've had people tell me, 'You're not going to be able to walk, you're not going to be able to hear, you're not going to ride a bike,' '' Alex said. "You can do whatever you want."

Alex struggled with health problems early in life. He was a premature baby. Open-heart surgery followed to correct a defect.

At age 5, he came down with spinal meningitis. His parents, Jeff and Jan, drove him from their home in Storm Lake to a hospital in Sioux City.

He used hearing aids for his failing ears until age 10. That's when one day he told his mother he couldn't hear anything.

His parents took him to doctors at the University of Iowa to learn about cochlear implants. The devices have two major components: a microphone worn on the outside of the head and an internal electronic system that produces signals the brain interprets as sounds.

Jeff Spielman was the men's basketball coach at Buena Vista University. Alex was a gym rat, and was concerned about being able to continue playing sports.

A doctor told Alex, "Young man, you can do whatever you want to do."

He took it to heart.

"Everything happens for a reason," Alex said. "You can choose what you want to be with your life with the options you're given, or you can just fold."

As a second-grader, Alex was already playing basketball with a team of sixth-graders.

"Alex has been a leader, he'll go by his own beat," Jeff said.

He received his first cochlear implant at age 10.

Alex, who became so gifted at reading lips and using his implant that he hasn't learned sign language, didn't mind curious schoolmates' glances.

He put paper clips up to the side of his head. They clung, drawn by the magnet under his skin.

"I've always been open-minded," Alex said. "Being deaf never really bothered me. I knew I was deaf. I've just been able to explain it to people."

The implant, which was replaced by a newer model last summer, allows him to talk on the phone. He can even plug his iPod directly into the unit to listen to country music.

He's attended prom and has a 2.9 grade-point average.

Alex has played wide receiver and defensive back on the football team, guard on the basketball court and performs the long jump, hurdles and sprint relays in track. He's going to run track and play basketball at South Dakota next fall.

There are struggles with new words and strange sounds with his implant. But his world is far from silent.

* * *

Few athletic events require such precision as a runner's start. Leave the blocks early and you're disqualified. Wait too long and you're far behind.

Alex tried to burst out of the blocks with his foes, but he wasn't satisfied. He watched for the smoke of the gun, but got out of the blocks late. He can't clearly hear the referee's voice in a strong wind.

He now braces himself at the "set" call and awaits the signal buzzing in his head.

"I really listen for that gun," Alex said, who says he can make up a lost stride during the race.

Jeff was transferred to a job in Ames last summer. Alex transferred from Storm Lake to Ballard during basketball season.

His implant helps him speak normally. He says some of his new teammates don't even realize he can't hear.

Someday, he wants to coach. He serves as a role model, coaching youth sports.

For now, he's focused on qualifying for state. He wants a rematch from the only runner to beat him in the Drake Relays high hurdles, Jacob Rohde of Mount Pleasant.

His philosophy of life echoes his confidence at the start of a race.

"I've always been able to go an extra step," Alex said.

Say "can't?" Never.

© 2007, The Des Moines Register.