TAMPA — Declan Farmer never saw the surprise coming. The tall, red-headed sophomore had walked to the main auditorium at Berkeley Prep on Tuesday morning, not noticing that all his classmates were decked out in red, white and blue. An a capella version of the national anthem, sung to a packed house of 600-plus students and teachers, gave him no hint. His name was announced, and what followed was a loud standing ovation, a "U-S-A" chant and a good-luck banner signed by so many that it took five students to stretch it out across the stage. The outpouring of campus pride and patriotism was for Farmer, who was soon
on his way to Sochi, Russia, to play for the U.S. sled hockey team in the Paralympics, which begin Friday.
"It was a big surprise, was really cool," said Farmer, who was preparing for a few days of team training in Colorado before the long trip. "It feels really good to know everybody's supporting me on my way to Sochi."
Farmer, a 16-year-old who stands 6 feet tall, was born a bilateral amputee, one leg above the knee, the other below. He walks with prosthetics.
He discovered sled hockey eight years ago at a clinic in Clearwater.
In sled hockey, players sit 4 inches off the ice on a double-bladed sled, passing, shooting and propelling themselves with two shortened hockey sticks that have picks on the end to grip the ice. It is fast and physical, and the players' proximity to the ice makes the game all the more intense.
Farmer wasn't surprised when he was named to the U.S. team in December. The shock had come a year earlier, when he made the national team as a 14-year-old and held his own skating against players in their 20s and 30s.
Farmer is tied for the team lead with four goals in 2013-14, including three in December in the World Sledge Challenge in Ontario, where the United States finished second to Canada, setting up a rivalry that could continue in the Paralympics final.
Patti Farmer said Tuesday that she hadn't cried at any point in the excitement of her son making the team and preparing for the Paralympics until his academic counselor, Katia Woods, called to tell her that students had put together a surprise sendoff, which also included a highlight video.
"This, to me, means so much more than anything, his friendships here," Patti said. "He's gone so much with hockey that this bridges everything together."
Declan's hockey has already taken him to international competitions in Canada and South Korea, but this is his first Paralympics. He remembers watching four years ago when the Games were in Vancouver, inspired but hardly thinking he would be living that dream in Sochi.
"It's on a big stage. A lot of people are watching, and it's being broadcast on TV. And it's just the Olympics, really," he said. "It got me excited, just watching the regular Olympics (last month), getting to see all the things, knowing I'd be in the same spots a couple of weeks later."
Need a jolt of inspiration? Go to pbs.org and watch Ice Warriors, about the U.S. sled hockey team. Check out the roster, which includes a pair of high school wrestling teammates whose legs were amputated in a car accident and a line of soldiers who lost limbs while serving overseas.
Farmer, whose training includes skating four days a week at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, will have his parents with him in Russia, as well as three grandparents and his 12-year-old brother, Ronan. He will also have a campus full of friends and teachers following each game back home, knowing he represents them as well.
"He's fantastic," Woods said. "I had to calm down this morning. The last two nights I couldn't sleep, thinking about this event, thinking of him going away. It's easy to love and admire Declan, but he's beyond words."