Declan Farmer (left) and a goalkeeper Jen Lee (right) celebrate winning gold at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 18, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
There is nothing like competing at the highest level. The competition is intense, the fans are amazing and the culture you get to experience all wrapped into a short period of time like the Paralympics is amazing.
I have had the privilege of putting on the red, white and blue and representing Team USA in sled hockey at two Paralympic Games — 2014 at Sochi and 2018 at PyeongChang. Both times, I was honored to win gold medals for my country.
But both experiences were different.
In 2014, I was 17 years old and a sophomore in high school. Due to being in school, I was unable to join my teammates until just before going to Sochi. Most of the team had moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a couple months in preparation for the Paralympics. It was an exciting time for me, though. Just a year before, I made the national team and, as Sochi approached, Twitter verified all of the athletes, so getting that blue checkmark on my account was a big deal among my classmates.
Playing in Sochi was quite the experience. We played the host Russians in an exhibition game just before the Paralympics started. Russia had started their sled hockey program about five years prior to get ready for the Games. We kind of had a reverse “Miracle on Ice” experience when we lost 2-1 in a preliminary-round game, but it would help us be even more focused when we faced them again in the gold-medal game and won 1-0.
Back in the U.S., I was used to playing in front of friends and family members. But in Sochi, we had a packed arena of 5,000 fans with television coverage from NBC. It was quite the shock to me as such a young player on the international stage for the first time.
Four years later, I was more prepared for what was going to happen in PyeongChang. Only this time, I knew more what was going to be expected of me now that I had more international experience. I was bigger and stronger and had created more of a bond with my teammates. Now I was attending Princeton and my school schedule worked out pretty well so that I could report to the training camp, which this time was in Chicago. While I have had close relationships with other teams, I definitely felt the closest to that team. We just had that extra-special connection.
That showed by how we dominated the preliminary games, winning 10-0, 10-0 and 8-0. Then we knocked off Italy 10-1 in the semifinals. While those games lacked drama, we knew we were in store for a fight facing our biggest rival, Canada, while going for gold.
From the time I woke up, the day just felt different. Everything we had worked for was on the line. My focus was so intense that the entire day was a fog until it was time for the game. Canada struck late in the first period, our first deficit at PyeongChang. We had steady leadership from Coach Jeff Sauer, who had reminded us not to get desperate. It remained 1-0 until late in the third period. We pulled our goalie with a little more than a minute left.
I was playing on the same line with Brody Robal and Joshua Misiewicz, both known as excellent passers for the second half of the game and they had set me up with several excellent chances to score. But I was unable to bury those opportunities. I tried not to get frustrated, stayed focused and trusted the process.
Just after Canada missed a chance to put us away when a shot toward an empty net clanged off the post, we took control of the puck and charged toward the offensive zone. I trailed on the play because I had lost my stick. As I entered the offensive zone, there was a scramble in front of the net and the puck popped out to me. All I saw was basically an empty net and my instincts took over for the biggest goal of my career, tying the gold-medal game with 38.7 seconds left.
We headed to overtime, which is played 4-on-4. That format benefits us because we have such terrific speed. Our confidence was also extremely high. Our goaltender, Steve Cash, made some great stops throughout the game, including overtime, to keep us in it.
Then, I had the biggest moment of my athletic career. Josh Pauls dumped the puck into the corner, I collected it and came around the top of the faceoff circle. Jack Wallace drew attention on the weak side and Brody was on top. It created the space I needed in the slot to score the winning goal of the Paralympics against our biggest rival 3 minutes, 30 seconds into overtime.
That is exactly the type of moment you think about during the long hours of training as you grow up and in the months leading up to the Paralympics. I was so happy to have that moment with this group of guys.
Now, I am getting ready for the next Paralympics. I already knew my preparations were going to be different. I graduated from Princeton in June after majoring in economics and computer science. Instead of jumping into the workforce, I wanted to focus on the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing.
Thanks to the support we get from USA Hockey and Team USA, a group of about seven of us have moved to Nashville, Tennessee, more than two years before Beijing. We plan on remaining here for the duration and training in hopes of going for an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal.
The pandemic has pushed back our schedule. Normally, we would be getting ready for the Sled Series against Canada. But as of now, we haven’t been able to train as a team since early this year and probably won’t get together again until January or February.
I already miss those games against Canada. The rivalry that exists at the Olympic level definitely extends to the Paralympic level. And unlike the Olympic level, where sometimes it is NHL teammates facing each other, the Paralympic rivalry is heated. But those days we face Canada are some of the best days of the year.