Athlete Overcomes Disability to Reach Great Heights

A few years ago, Declan Farmer did not know much about hockey. He knew even less about sled hockey.

Declan, age 16, has a congenital limb deficiency in both legs that required amputation. One amputation is above the knee and one is below. Despite his disability, Declan has always remained interested in sports.

“I watch a lot of sports on TV and I’ve always liked being active,” he said. “I just wanted to find a sport to compete in.”

He eventually found much more than that. In sled hockey, Declan found a sport in which he would become one of the best in the world.

Long Way to Go

When Declan first came to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Limb Deficiency Program as a 3-year-old, the orthopaedic specialists, prosthetist and therapists were concerned that he was still unable to walk.

“That is why his story is so inspirational,” said Brian Giavedoni, Senior Prosthetist with Children’s. “He was having difficulty even walking. He went from that to what he is doing now.”

Declan was also born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a birth defect that affected both his hips and bones in the lower legs. He needed six surgeries so he would be able to use prosthetic legs and several more, performed more recently by Michael Schmitz, M.D., to rebuild his hip.

“Even the best prosthesis can’t replace the function of the hip,” said Colleen Coulter, Physical Therapist and Team Leader of the Limb Deficiency Program. “The hip is where you see most of his challenges and weaknesses.”

For the last 12 years, Declan and his family have traveled to Children’s from their home in Tampa, Fla., for regular adjustments and fittings. During his early visits at Children’s, Declan was inspired to pursue athletics.

“I liked it,” he said. “I saw a bunch of pictures of adaptive athletes on the wall. That encouraged me to be active. They would always tell me about adaptive sports I could try.” 

Sticking With It

Declan was first introduced to sled hockey in 2006 when he saw team from New York put on a clinic. He was instantly intrigued.

“It was the first sport I played that was for adaptive athletes only,” Declan said “So naturally, I would be more competitive in it. I just stuck with it.”

Sled hockey is a form of ice hockey designed for people with physical disabilities. Instead of skates, players use specially designed sleds to move around on the ice. Declan began playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning sled hockey team two years later.

“He has always been like that. He was always go, go, go,” said Giavedoni, who helps Declan adjust his sled as the 16-year-old grows. “He finally found sled hockey. It clicked with him.”

Going Gold

After just a few years playing the sport, he was named to the U.S. National Team. Following a second-place finish at the World Championships in Korea in 2013, Declan made it through a difficult tryout to land a spot on the 2014 Paralympics team.

“I think it was the most competitive tryout ever this year,” Declan said. “There were a ton of players, like 70, for 17 spots. I was pretty excited. It's great.”

Competing on the sport’s biggest stage in Sochi, Russia, Declan played his best sled hockey, helping the team win the gold medal with a 1-0 win over Russia in the finals.

Declan, who scored three goals and five points in the Paralympic Games, was a finalist for “Best Male Paralympian.”