The United States sled hockey team has trained for this moment for months. Today, 17 players will take the ice for the biggest game of their lives against Russia for the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
These 17 athletes may be disabled, but they play the same way. There will be hard hits. There will be trash talking. There will be penalties. That's what ice hockey is all about.
Josh Sweeney and Rico Roman, two-thirds of a line dubbed the "Bravo Delta line" because they are all war veterans, explained how sled hockey works:
Like Rico and Josh, all of the players acknowledge their disabilities, whether it is a birth defect such as Spina Bifida or from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. But as Head Coach Jeff Sauer puts it, as soon as they put that jersey on, they feel no different from any other athlete representing their country.
And this afternoon, the sled team will represent their country on the world stage in a bid to be the first team to win back-to-back gold medals since the sport was introduced to the Paralympics in the 1994 Winter Paralympic Games in Norway. This year's team has a local connection though.
Declan Farmer is a first-timer on Team USA's Paralympic sled hockey roster in Sochi. He has a team-high five points throughout the tournament. And, the most amazing part of it all? He is 16 years old.
I began playing sled hockey with Declan four years ago after seeing an episode of Inside the Lightning that talked about a program sponsored by the Lightning Foundation. From the moment I got on the ice in my oversized jersey and skated alongside him, I figured he would eventually compete in the Paralympics. And in a short video created by the Tampa Bay Times during a practice all those years ago, teammate Ron Richardson said something remarkably prophetic:
He's just going to be a phenom. I guarantee it.
And, he certainly has. Now Declan, along with the rest of the Team USA roster, will put everything on the line to play for gold against Russia in what is sure to be a hostile arena in Sochi.
For the first time ever, the Paralympic Games have been televised, giving Paralympians the attention they rightfully deserve. The gold medal game will be broadcast nationally today at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. They need your support, so tune in this afternoon to cheer them on.