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Soccer: South goalie's battle with cystic fibrosis pushes him through state championship win

Once the final buzzer sounded May 14 during the Class 7A state championship game, South Forsyth goalie Ian Spera said he watched the celebration in front of him dumbfounded. 

“At first, I was standing there and the buzzer went off,” said Spera, a senior on South's state champion boys soccer team. “I’m just in shock standing and seeing South [Forsyth] run over. I can’t really describe it. Just so much joy. My entire soccer career could not have ended any better.”

Spera reached his dream of becoming a state champion on the soccer field and replayed in his head all the hard work he had to endure just to be able to be there.

That’s because Spera has cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes mucus to become thick and sticky, which can dangerously block airways. According to CF can cause coughing fits, many lung infections and phlegm buildup. Fifty years ago, there was no treatment for the disease, but now, those diagnosed have a life expectancy well into adulthood, according to the website. 

When Spera was 10 years old, he went to his pediatrician’s office for a routine check-up. After doctors found a polyp in his nasal cavity, they sent him to another doctor’s office where blood work revealed he had cystic fibrosis. 

“I’ve been fortunate to have it not as bad as others, but it still takes its toll on me,” Spera said. “It takes a portion out of my day to do what I need to do to keep me healthy. I think that my life is probably more normal than it would be if I had been diagnosed with a much worse case, but whether it’s mild or not, you can still feel the effects of it.” 

After the diagnosis, Spera stopped playing baseball, a sport where there was a lot of stopping and going, to find something that could moderately keep his heart rate up throughout the entire game. He played soccer for a few years but had stopped. However, he had not lost his love for being in the goal. 

“The fact that it was one of the most important roles is what I loved so much about it,” Spera said. “You either get all the glory or all the blame goes on you. I liked diving too. I loved physically doing that. I liked sitting back and watching the game, but being able to do what I need to do when the time comes.” 

He spent the rest of his time as a kid working his way up the ranks before joining the South Forsyth High School team as a freshman. Though he did not become the starting goalie for the varsity team until this season, War Eagles head coach Chere Thomas said that Spera was always poised to take a leadership role. 

Ian Spera was the South Forsyth goalie who won the state championship in overtime against cross town rivals Lambert. Spera has competed on the soccer field his whole career with cystic fibrosis. - photo by Jacob Smith
“Confident and commanding,” Thomas said. “The biggest thing is confidence. I wasn’t sure coming into the season how he was going to respond, but he came out with such a confidence that it instilled confidence in all of his teammates. That’s what is so special about him.”

Spera said that the adrenaline usually keeps him from feeling worn out during a game, but that he definitely realizes he needs to rest once the game is over. The adrenaline also does not keep him from finishing a lot of sprints behind the rest of his teammates, but that doesn’t bother him, as long as he continues to compete at a high level, like his team did this season. 

“If there was no pandemic, I’m pretty sure we would have had a very good chance of winning the state last year,” Spera said. “It was cut off, so suddenly and felt kind of wrong that we weren’t able to play. So when we came into this year, we realized we had to put everything out there. I was uncertain if we were going to be able to make it as far as we did, but I kind of just knew we were going to go far.” 

Now that the soccer season has ended, Spera is finding new ways to keep his body active and stimulated. He has been making an effort to go on a walk with his parents every day and is looking forward to getting into the gym. 

His facility at Kennesaw State University will be great when Spera and his best friends move into their dormitory to start college in August. Though Spera said he is excited about the opportunity to make new friends, he will never forget his War Eagle teammates. 

“Being on the soccer team doesn’t make you teammates,” Spera said. “It makes you brothers. A close-knit, strong family of brothers. So when you win games, you’re there with the people you worked so hard with. Same in losses. You’re frustrated, but you know your brother will always have your back.” 

Reminiscing on the past season reminds Thomas why she made Spera one of the vocal leaders on the field, adding that she often forgot of Spera’s conditions because of how little he acknowledged it himself. 

“It kind of puts the championship on a whole different level when you sit down and think about it,” Thomas said. “Most kids would use it as an excuse not to push themselves or do anything, but with Ian, he never wanted to make an excuse. To be honest, it’s not something we focused on. I’m sure he has teammates that don’t know his condition.” 

As his athletic career winds down, Spera said he hopes that he can be an inspiration for another kid worried that he might not ever be able to play a sport he loves. 

“Look at this article and read about another kid who has the same condition. Look at it as an inspiration that this illness does not prevent you from achieving your dreams,” Spera said. “See this as a beacon of light. At least some hope and our courage.”