CHAMPAIGN — Matt Fisher is a product of an always-alert culture, where strangers seldom offer assistance unless there’s an ulterior motive. Youngsters are taught to be leery of trusting anyone outside of family, acquaintances and law enforcement.
The Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley hurdler experienced a moment as a high school junior in 2003 that made him cautious.
He had just finished a race and was heading to the team tent.
“This guy stopped me,” Fisher said, “and said he thought I had some good hurdling technique on my own and he’d like to work with me.
“I was definitely thinking, ‘I’m a 17-year-old high school kid. He wants to work with me.’ Your mind is telling you don’t talk to strangers. I took his card.”
Fisher lost the card and didn’t follow up. Nine months later, GCMS classmate Frannie Epps was talking about a private hurdling coach she was working with during the winter at the UI Armory. She mentioned the name Gary Spezia.
“It rang a bell,” Fisher said. “I asked if she minded if I went with her to a workout.”
Fisher soon learned what others already recognized about Gary Spezia, the man in a wheelchair who has been a prominent figure at area prep track meets for two decades: He is trustworthy, sincere and devoted.
“It was unbelievable,” Fisher said. “In three months, I went from a mediocre run-of-the-mill hurdler to going to the state meet ranked No. 2.
“I realized this guy is like a book of knowledge, and if I wanted to be as good as I wanted, I needed to listen to him.”
From Arthur to Hoopeston and from Georgetown to Gibson City, Spezia has tutored hurdlers and helped them run faster. He has worked with athletes (including Epps) who won state titles indoors and others (such as nephew Gabe Spezia, from Westville) who were outdoor state champions.
He has helped refine the technique for people who went on to establish school hurdling records at Bismarck-Henning, Mahomet-Seymour, Salt Fork and Westville as well as at GCMS.
Catlin’s Michelle Kimbro did her homework when she learned Spezia was interested in working with her daughter Jenny, a Salt Fork freshman.
“First off, you think, how does he know Jenny and why would he want to work with her?” Michelle Kimbro said.
It didn’t take long for Michelle Kimbro to be comfortable with the situation.
“Once I asked, his reputation preceded him,” she said. “Lynn Anderson (Oakwood girls’ track coach) filled me in. Taylor Kirby’s mother, Kristie, talked to me.”
Spezia also works with Taylor Kirby and his sister, Morgan, both of whom are hurdlers at Salt Fork.
“He has a solid track record of helping the elite hurdler, so they trust his guidance,” Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley girls’ coach Erica Kostoff said. “When you find joy in something you love, that passion is energizing and others notice and want to be a part.”
On the surface, there seems to be the potential for conflict between Spezia and high school coaches, who seldom want their authority and control usurped.
“This sport is extremely technical, and with so many events (18), it is tough for coaches to be experts in all things track, not to mention difficult to fit in the specific training needed for each event in a day or even a week,” Kostoff said. “Volunteers are needed and difficult to find. Athletes must often supplement training on their own if they are in multiple events.”
Spezia doesn’t operate behind a coach’s back. When he commits to working with an athlete, he tells the teenager what to expect.
“I’m very upfront,” Spezia said. “I tell kids, ‘I’ll meet with your coach.’ ”
Said Bismarck-Henning coach Susan Kentner:
“Gary never steps on toes. He always lets me know what he is working on and gives me good feedback.”
Said Salt Fork girls’ coach Gail Biggerstaff: “I have learned so much from Gary, so when he isn’t able to see our hurdlers, I have more insight on coaching our hurdlers.”
Spezia was 26 years old when the wheelchair became his waking companion.
Prior to that, he was a four-sport all-conference athlete as a senior at Bismarck-Henning, earning recognition in football, basketball, baseball and track and field.
He played basketball in college, his final two years at Bemidji (Minn.) State.
As a youth, he considered himself better in baseball — as an outfielder and first baseman — than in track as a hurdler.
“I had good technique and good form,” he said, “but I wasn’t real fast.”
He was fascinated by what it took to run on the track and clear a set of obstacles en route to the finish line. He took the knowledge he gleaned from B-H coaches Tom Johnson and Ron Winkler and literally ran with it.
“I became a student of it,” Spezia said. “I watched videos and read about the top hurdlers, going back to (gold medalist) Willie Davenport and the ’68 Olympics.”
The fourth child in a family of five siblings, Gary Spezia graduated from B-H in 1979. When he was a senior, younger sister Ronna was a freshman who was interested in hurdling.
Gary Spezia — who began his collegiate career at Danville Area Community College — started working with his sister on the track. As a senior, Ronna Spezia placed fifth at state in the 200 low hurdles.
Spezia tries not to reflect on the “what ifs” in his life. Instead of staying at Bemidji and earning his bachelor’s degree after his athletic eligibility was exhausted, he transferred to Eastern Illinois.
“In the transfer as a senior, I lost credits,” he said. “I was ready to move home.”
He ultimately graduated from EIU with a degree in zoology and said “the last thing I wanted to do was coach.”
He accepted a sales job with an automotive school in Indianapolis, Lincoln Technical Institute, got married and was working for the school in 1987.
One of the passions of his youth had returned, and Spezia spent free time hunting and fishing.
“My dad (Ron) was an outdoors guy, and I got back into it,” Spezia said.
While deer hunting by himself near Charleston in October 1987, Spezia spotted a doe and stood up.
“I got dizzy and lightheaded,” he said. “The last thing I remember was trying to get rid of the bow so I wouldn’t fall on the arrow.”
He fell 12 feet from the tree and — in an era before cellphones — was on the ground 4 hours before his wife found him. He suffered a broken back and has been paralyzed since from the mid-chest region down.
“I spent three months in the hospital,” Spezia said.
The experience didn’t turn him off to hunting.
“I’ve gotten four or five deer since then,” he said. “I just don’t get into trees. I use a shotgun now.”
Rather than return to his sales job, Spezia returned to school at EIU in 1988. He earned his master’s degree in educational psychology in 1990.
For 22 years, he has worked at the University of Illinois. For a time, he was in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Most recently, he worked as an academic adviser in biology, though he is currently on medical leave.
“It’s a daily struggle,” he said.
Though he doesn’t dwell on the past, a nagging thought remains.
“If I had stayed in Bemidji like I should have, would I ever have fallen out of a tree stand?” Spezia wondered.
He now combines two of his passions into one endeavor.
Recognizing that the first impression some people have about him is along the lines of, “What does a guy in a wheelchair know about hurdling?” Spezia finds, “I’ve got to prove myself.”
Since working with his nephew Gabe (who swept the two state hurdles events with record-setting times in 1995 as a senior at Westville), he sought to do more than explain to hurdlers what they need to do.
“I do wood carving,” Spezia said. “I’ve made teaching aids. I’ve made a leg out of quarter-inch plywood, with a hinged joint.
“It’s a regular-sized leg, and I can show them, ‘You need to be in this position.’ ”
Track has become a salvation for Spezia.
“I call myself a hurdle consultant,” said Spezia, who is certified to coach by the IHSA. “The quality of some coaching is limited. I try to fill a void.
“As far as hurdling is concerned, you have to change how a kid runs, then teach them how to hurdle. You have to have an open mind and be willing to change some things. Some are more willing to change than others.
“I find kids who want to do it, who can do it and who will spend time on their own after practice or on weekends. I won’t spend time with kids who don’t want to do it.”
For families with children under Spezia’s tutelage, the price is right. He doesn’t charge a penny, nor does he accept money.
He does have one request.
“To me, it’s kind of healthy giving back. I ask them to teach what they learn,” he said. “It may not be next year but keep passing it on. Teach what you learn to someone else.”
Fisher has taken the message to heart.
He returned to his alma mater to work with a promising GCMS hurdler, Jordyn Nettleton (who now is competing at Olivet Nazarene).
“I took Gary’s role and taught everything Gary taught me,” Fisher said. “I was able to develop her technique. There were times I was helping her, and I’d get stuck. I’d call Gary and pick his brain. Gary put it in a way both of us could understand.
“Gary had a way of breaking it down into simplistic, easily understood drills. It always made a lot of sense when he explained it.”
As Fisher’s other commitments increased, Spezia worked more with Nettleton before she graduated last year as a state medalist.
“Jordyn was a product of me and Gary,” Fisher said.
Now a freshman at ONU, Nettleton is voluntarily working with aspiring hurdlers at nearby Kankakee Bishop McNamara High School.
Spezia doesn’t restrict his commitment to the 90 minutes or so he spends at the track working with hurdlers. He attends as many meets as possible.
“It’s not a good track meet unless you see Gary down at that track, and usually he has many athletes surrounding him, all ears,” Kentner said. “He does what he does for the pure enjoyment of the sport, and he truly loves to see kids get better.”
Said Kostoff: “He also commits his time to travel to watch them compete, showing he cares and is committed to following up on their training and the end result.”
Fisher, who hopes to become a firefighter, is thankful he crossed paths with Spezia.
“He was a guiding light for me,” Fisher said. “He is probably the single-most influential person in my life outside of my parents. He is still a part of my life today.
“He was more than a track and field person to me. He was more like a family member.”
Spezia deflects the credit and praise. The real success stories, he said, are the ones that occur outside of the competition.
“It’s rewarding for me to see kids do well,” he said, “but ultimately, it’s about going to college and getting an education.”
In his own life, Spezia has learned to deal with the hurdles in his path. His success, he believes, can be traced to his playing days as a Blue Devil.
“Sports develop a mental toughness,” he said. “Rebounding. Not giving up. Coming back.”
With regularity every spring, Spezia comes back to the track.
“Track is special to me,” he said. “It’s how I choose to spend my time.”
Continuing a legacy
Gary Spezia has been a volunteer high school coach for numerous area boys and girls during the past two decades, primarily working with hurdlers. Among those who excelled:
NAME SCHOOL YEAR COMMENT
Frannie Epps GCMS 2004 Second at state (300 hurdles) and third (100 hurdles) outdoors
Jennifer Fall Mahomet-S. 2005 Eighth at state (300 hurdles) outdoors; school-record time, 44.70 seconds
Jessica Brito Bismarck-H. 2009 Third at state (300 hurdles) outdoors; school-record time, 45.69
Makenzie Baker Oakwood 2012 State qualifier in 300 hurdles; season-best time, 49.24
Jordyn Nettleton GCMS 2012 Sixth at state (300 hurdles) and eighth at state (100 hurdles) outdoors
Jenny Kimbro Salt Fork 2013 Won state (60 hurdles) indoors; school-record time, 15.42 outdoors in 100 hurdles
NAME SCHOOL YEAR COMMENT
Gabe Spezia Westville 1995 State champ outdoors (110, 300 hurdles), school-record times of 14.2 and 38.11
Matt Fisher GCMS 2004 Two-event sectional champion; school-record time, 14.3 seconds in 100 hurdles
Alex McMahon Westville 2009 Two-event sectional champion; placed sixth at state in 100
Devon Darnell G-RF/C 2011 Third at state outdoors (110 hurdles) as senior; sixth at state (110 hurdles) as junior
Ian Park Bismarck-H. 2011 Fifth at state (300 hurdles) outdoors; second-best time in area for season, 39.48
Taylor Kirby Salt Fork 2013 Eighth at state (60 hurdles) indoors; eighth in area outdoors (110 hurdles), 16.00