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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Paralympics athlete is Tampa’s own Ice Warrior

TAMPA — In a tunnel at the Forum, between hockey games, a young boy leaned forward, legs dangling from his wheelchair. He was looking up at his friend and hero, the red-headed giant.

“Declan, you going to the Olympics today?”

“No, not yet. Pretty soon.”

The boy grinned.

Declan Farmer, 6 feet tall, walked down a hall, took a seat, removed his prosthetic legs and began dressing for his game.

“Everyone has something to go through in life, and something to give,” Farmer said.

He is a Tampa Olympian. Farmer plays forward on the United States sled hockey team that will compete next month in Sochi, Russia, at the Winter Paralympics. He’s just 16, a sophomore at Berkeley Prep, but has already traveled the world, displaying breakout speed, uncanny hockey instincts and a wicked shot that can come from anywhere, off his left or right stick. Phenom.

Farmer is part of a U.S. team that varies in age from 15 to 35 and in life experiences. There are decorated disabled veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There are two friends who were injured in the same high school accident. And there’s Farmer, born a bilateral amputee, above the left knee, below the right. He’s tied for the U.S. team lead in goals. It’s a close unit, and its spirit is perfectly captured in the PBS film “Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey,” which airs Monday (10 p.m., WEDU PBS).

“He is a remarkably put together young person,” Judith Vecchione, the film’s executive producer, said of Farmer. “He has his head on very straight.”

“He has the potential to be one of the best in the world,” said U.S. coach Jeff Sauer, who knows the look. Sauer won two NCAA titles as men’s hockey coach at Wisconsin, teaching several future NHL stars.

“Declan is one of the smartest players out there. He is really a student of the game. But don’t get in his way. He’ll run you over. Nothing is going to stop him.”

Farmer and other top sled players were at the Forum recently for an exhibition event. Among them were Farmer’s teammates from the Lightning sled hockey program and the Florida Bandits, the state’s elite all-star team. Among the celebrity participants were former Lightning players Brian Bradley, Dave Andreychuk and Chris Dingman.

The old Bolts struggled in the sleds, which are propelled only by players’ pushing off with the serrated picks on the ends of their sticks. It’s exhausting. There was another problem: Farmer.

“It’s like playing against Gretzky all night,” Bradley said.

Farmer, in a red, white and blue sled, had two goals and two assists in the exhibition. Now his mind is on Sochi — and payback. Team USA, which won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, lost to bitter rival Canada in the 2013 world championship game in South Korea. Farmer had four goals and four assists in that tournament, but he wants more than second place. It’s nothing new.

Matt and Patti Farmer and their youngest son, Ronan, will follow Declan to Sochi. Farmer’s parents never needed to tell their oldest he could be anything he wanted. He learned to walk on prosthetics when he was a year old.

“Nothing has ever really held him back,” Matt said.

“Especially being born without legs, it’s pretty natural for me,” Farmer said. “It’s harder for guys wounded in the military or who lost their legs. I’ve never known any different.”

He tried football and soccer when he was young, but his prosthetics limited him. He tried wrestling and sailing. They were easier. But he kept searching. In 2006, he asked his father to take him to a sled hockey exhibition in Clearwater.

It was the first disabled sport Farmer had ever played.

“He was hooked,” Matt said.

Farmer joined the then-fledgling Lightning sled program. He was on his way. After attending national development camps, he was selected for Team USA in 2012. At 15, he was the youngest player in team history at the time.

“For a while, a teammate had to sign for him on flights as an unaccompanied minor. It was pretty funny,” said Josh Pauls, 21, one of Farmer’s linemates. Now Farmer isn’t even the youngest on that line. That’s 15-year-old Brody Roybal.

“They bring a lot of energy,” Pauls said.

So do the military veterans.

“I admire them a lot,” Farmer said. “They’re great leaders. They play with so much heart. They kind of look after the younger guys.”

Kasey Yates, 9, of Seminole, played in the sled game at the Forum. Yates has spina bifida. After, he sat in his wheelchair and said he wanted to be an Olympian. His mom, Loyda, smiled.

“He always talks about Declan,” she said.

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