May 9, 2014

Weekender: Denison's Speidel Declines All Excuses

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Because of Amniotic Band Syndrome, Denison's Chapin Speidel has spent his entire lacrosse career without the full use of fingers that others take for granted. It hasn't stopped him from becoming a three-time All-NCAC selection and one of the key pieces in the Big Red's 17-0 record. (John Strohsacker)

Chapin Speidel doesn't like to talk about it. There's an annoyed timbre in his voice when he speaks on the subject. There's a defiant quality regarding how he approaches questions about his so-called physical disability.

Considering what Speidel has accomplished in his athletic career, he wants to be known as an outstanding lacrosse player. He wants to be known as the student-athlete who played in every game his freshman year at Denison as a midfielder, and has started every game in the three years since. He wants to be known as the 6-foot-3, 205-pound match-up nightmare who has scored 22 goals and dished 18 assists this spring. He wants to be known as one of the most consistent players on the best team in Denison history entering this weekend's NCAA second round game with Aurora.

He does not want to be the guy who is getting his notoriety because he was affected by Amniotic Band Syndrome.

ABS is, in layman's terms, when a fibrous membrane wraps around a part of a baby in utero, constricting blood flow to specific regions of the body, typically arms and legs. It is not a genetic condition – no concrete pathology has been determined for it and no two cases are the same – but it typically results in the amputation of whatever part of the body that the band comes in contact with.

In Speidel's case, the four fingers on each hand were truncated near the first knuckle.

It's impossible for anyone with fully formed fingers to even contemplate what it's like to go through life without many of the things they take for granted, like easily gripping the most mundane objects. When one considers just how important the hands are for a lacrosse player, it's bordering on the unfathomable to conceptualize the levels Speidel has reached.

And that's the way Speidel has wanted it.

"I take great pride in people not recognizing it and me just going out and doing what I do and them assuming I'm normal," Speidel said. "When people do find out, they're astounded, but it's not something I like to advertise. Basically, the physical thing is just something I've had to deal with throughout my life, and it's just part who I am. But it hasn't slowed me down."

* * *

When Denison head coach Michael Caravana was an undergrad at Virginia where he was a four-time All-American lacrosse player, he knew Speidel's mother, Sophie (née Carpenter). "She was an excellent athlete and one of the best lacrosse players to play at Virginia," Caravana said.

Carvana also sees her as the one who gave Chapin a competitive foundation from a very early age, even though he didn't have the same hands as the rest of the children he grew up with. Nurturing takes many forms, and sometimes it manifests itself by instilling a child with an innate unwillingness to use a crutch, figuratively or otherwise.

"She just said, 'This isn't going to stop you,'" Caravana said, paraphrasing Sophie. "'We're not going to allow it to. You've got to learn to adjust to different challenges.'"

Speidel clearly took it to heart, and he used athletics as a way to reflect his defiance of conventional wisdom. He would not be slowed down because others thought he should be. When he arrived at the St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville as a freshman, he made the varsity football team and lettered all four years. When lacrosse season rolled around, he also made the varsity squad as a frosh, and proceeded to be a three-time All-State honoree and All-American his senior campaign.

During his freshman year in high school, Speidel crossed passed paths briefly with Caravana, who was in his final year as the head coach at Woodberry Forest. Because of his friendship with his mother along with other connections in the Charlottesville area, Caravana knew of Speidel and understood he was a good player. When Caravana returned to Denison the following year, Speidel was on his radar, but still a year or two away from recruitment. A knee injury cost Speidel quality time on the camp circuit and Division I eyeballs, opening the door for Denison to be an option.

"Coach C said 'If you work hard and keep doing what you're doing, we feel like you're a big, strong, athletic kid and you could have an impact right away,'" Speidel said. "I don't know if he says that to every recruit coming in, but either way, I anticipated that not many freshmen walk on the field right away. You have to earn your stripes, and that's the approach I took. Luckily, I saw valuable time my freshman year, which bode well for my next three years."

While he doesn't let it limit his goals, the ABS obviously impacts how Speidel approaches the game.

"When you are faced with challenges, it depends on your attitude. His attitude was, I've got this challenge, and I'm going to overcome it. His success and the way he goes about it without any excuses, it rubs off on the team and his teammates. There are no disabilities. Let's go play." - Denison head coach Michael Caravana on Chapin Speidel. (John Strohsacker)

"If you curl your fingers in to the first knuckle, you can play pretty well with your stick, but the width and distance of your stick is much smaller," Caravana said, describing how Speidel nuances his game. "Now open up your hand, and you pull the stick further back and further through. He's really a good shooter, but he has a smaller window. It's a like a golfer who can't get a full back swing and follow through. It doesn't mean there aren't good golfers that way. Lee Trevino used to be that way. He would come back to the shoulder and follow through real quick. That doesn't mean that he wasn't a good golfer, he just doesn't hit the ball like Bubba Watson."

Using his large frame, Speidel gets good position on his defender, who is usually a short-stick defensive middie. Through countless hours of repetition to hone his accuracy, he has combined his size with a marksman's precision inside of 10 yards, despite a slightly unorthodox form.

"When the gloves come on, it actually helps because it gives me more grip on the stick," Speidel said. "I definitely feel like it influences my style of play. My shooting motion might be a little unusual and I might not get as much power on the shot, but that's why I've worked on the accuracy part."

His rookie year in Granville, Speidel came off the bench and scored 10 goals along with eight assists. His sophomore year, he started all 17 games and was third on the team with 40 points (22g, 18a) and was named second team All-NCAC. Last year, it was 26 goals and eight assists along with first team all-conference honors – an award he matched this spring as a senior.

Speidel's contributions to Denison out of the public eye may be even more important – and inspiring – than what happens on a scoresheet. Every day that a Denison player wants to dog it at practice because of a bad grade or an angry girlfriend or some other kind of distraction or perceived shortcoming, they are quickly slapped back to reality by watching how Speidel handles a true obstacle.

"When you are faced with challenges, it depends on your attitude. His attitude was, I've got this challenge, and I'm going to overcome it," Caravana said. "His success and the way he goes about it without any excuses, it rubs off on the team and his teammates. There are no disabilities. Let's go play. His daily approach to things, his daily competitiveness to reach his potential and focusing on what he can do and not what he can't, has been very helpful for us during his four years."

* * *

So why does a player who has wanted to be known for everything but his affliction open up about it near the end of his career? Speidel and the Big Red have one guaranteed game left this weekend and a maximum of four remaining.

What can be gained by talking about it now?

"I was hesitant to do this interview because my hands have never been in the spotlight throughout my entire career," Speidel said. "I've had a great deal of success and no one has really known about it. But then I talked to my parents and they said, 'This interview could be beneficial for parents or their children in a similar situation who maybe don't feel like they can play athletics. Seeing you doing what you do, it could be an inspiration. To reassure them that it's possible.'"

During his high school years, Speidel spoke with both parents of children with ABS and the kids themselves. His message was consistent.

"Just embrace it," Speidel said. "It's nothing you can dwell on or feel sorry for yourself about. It's not genetic; it's just kind of an accident. Make the most of it and be yourself as a person and appreciate what you do have. I always tell myself that it could be a lot worse. For example, I do have thumbs, which is a major component as to why I could play.

"I would tell the parents to love the kid and support him in what he wants to do. There are going to be times when things are tough growing up with the teasing. As you get older, people understand that there are differences out there. People don't really judge on that one quality. Just be yourself, and try to move past the initial shock of it and appreciate the overall healthiness of the kid. Don't let it you bring you down. Just do everything you can do, and if there's not something the child can do, find a substitute. Don't waste any time dwelling on it."

For Speidel, time is best spent reaching goals, not formulating excuses.

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