A Boy from Illinois Makes It Big in California Water Polo

Celebration of Bruin pride. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Haynes/KLC fotos

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

It was—in many ways—an impossible dream: a talented and determined young water polo player from the middle of the country going west to play water polo at UCLA, one of the country’s most accomplished programs.

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But Matt Farmer of La Grange, Illinois, was not just any player. Starting at age eight when he got in the water with the Lyons Swim Club and continuing through his training under legendary coach Dave Perry and his son Kyle at Chicago’s Fenwick High School, Farmer was one of the best prospects coming out of the Midwest since Chris Wendt, who also played at UCLA.

Farmer’s hard work has now paid off many times over. With a gritty 7-5 win last Sunday over arch-rival USC, Farmer combined with fellow seniors Jack Grover, Max Irving and Alex Roelse to lead the Bruins to a third NCAA title in in their UCLA careers.

The win caps Farmer’s amazing career in Westwood, one which makes him arguably the most accomplished water polo athletes to come out of the Midwest. Following UCLA’s victory last Sunday at Uytengsu Aquatics Center, Swimming World spoke with Farmer, his coach Adam Wright and his father Jim for the backstory of one of the the 2017 NCAA champions’ most endearing competitors.

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Matt, how many kids from the Midwest get to play on an NCAA men’s water polo champion?

Not many, that’s for sure. I got the most out of my experience at UCLA and it’s been unbelievable. I can’t thank everyone who supported me enough. My coaches back in Chicago, my parents—and of course Adam has been amazing and turned me into a player that I never thought I could become.

I believed the whole way that we could get it done.

How did USA Water Polo’s John Abdou impact your career?

I was trying out for the [Cadet] team as a utility [player], but he convinced me to play center, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I guess it was the right move.

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Jim, Matt Farmer at Fenwick High School. Photo Courtesy: Jim Farmer

What is it about the UCLA winning culture?

It’s the culture that Adam instills in us. The seniors and the leaders that have come before us and have passed this down to us. The culture that training every day the same way is how we do things, and treating everything the same.

I hope that culture passes down to the younger guys as I leave.

Your team has a bunch of seniors, just like USC, but even though you had won before you were still hungry.

We believed we had the capability to do something really special—even if people didn’t really think we did. We worked every single day in the off-season, all through the season bringing in the new guys and trying to be good examples for them.

Everyone from top to bottom believed we could do it. We might have been the only ones but we were the ones who believed. And that’s all that mattered.

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Farmer puts UCLA on top of USC for good. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Haynes/KLC fotos

How might your success inspire other from the Midwest to reach the same heights?

I hope it inspires people to chase their dreams when it comes to water polo and that kids from the Midwest can come out and make an impact on a high-level in NCAA. I hope it impacts the coaching and the officiating back there because there’s a lot of work to do in those departments.

Starting as an eight-year-old, my coaches in Chicago instilled in me a great basis of love for the fundamentals game, especially when it came to defense. Those stay with me to this day, and they kept getting better and better every coach I played for. Of course Adam turned me into what I am now.

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UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright about Matt Farmer

[C]oming from Illinois…. [Matt] had the drive before he come to UCLA. That’s instilled probably from home. And he was coming out to California to play in the summers.

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Adam Wright. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Haynes/KLC fotos

[He] willed his way into being a big contributor on our 2014 team. If you were looking at the straight depth chart under center when he came in as a freshman, he was at the bottom. He took it upon himself in his redshirt year. He was going to the weight room six days a week and coming to the pool at night.

[Matt] did everything he could because he wanted to be in there. [His success] is a direct result of his drive to be the very best he could be.

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Jim Farmer talks about his connection with his son

He’s exceeded every dream I ever had. I couldn’t be prouder. When he was eight years-old and he tried water polo—which he didn’t want to do—he came out and said: “This is my sport.”

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Jim, Beatrice, Matt, Danny Farmer & the 2017 NCAA Trophy

I was fortunate enough that I could help him go to the places that he needed to go. In the summers in seventh grade I sent him out here to California. The families that we’ve dealt with in his club—VCP, Delmar—they’ve been so wonderful. It’s a small world and we help each other out; there’s no way I could thank all those people for what they’ve done for Matt.

How will Matt’s success impact the water polo scene in Chicago?

Between my son and Danielle Jackovich at Stanford, I hope it’s an incentive for them. I know there are kids at Fenwick who strive to do what Matt has been able to accomplish.

There were eight Illinois coaches and referees up in the stands. They’re into it; they want to grow the sport.

Whatever we can do to help them, the more the better. Little steps; you’ve got to walk before you can run.

13 Comments

13 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi:

      I imagine that the “Yay” is for Farmer. His is a GREAT story (of course I think that!) – mostly because his effort turned into an almost unbelievable reward; three NCAA championships. Hard to beat that (well, FOUR would but there’s VERY few people who have done that…).

      Your correspondent

  1. avatar

    3 Illinois High School Association State Championships and 3 NCAA National Championships. Quite a run for Matt. We’re very proud of what a great young man he has become and look forward to seeing what he’ll do next.

    -His friends at the Fenwick Pool

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Coach:

      Thanks for your comments, I’m sure ALL in Illinois are grateful to you for your / Fenwick’s contributions to area water polo. I can only imagine just how gratifying it is to see one of your players achieve so much—and to be in the reflected glow of that success!

      I did ask Matt what was next – of course, he was still immersed in the joy of UCLA’s accomplishment – but let’s hope that he represents a standard that other Chicago-area players aspire to (and perhaps he’ll bring some NCAA hardware to the Fenwick pool for show and tell!).

      All the best to you and your Friars teams…

      Your correspondent

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Hi:

        I’m not so clear on the linkage here to Matt Farmer BUT I suppose any connects to the Farmers and Chicago polo are prized. BTW, do you see Matt’s success as part of a larger trend (i.e. that more Chicago area players will make it to California’s top programs) or that he’s one of a kind?

        Your correspondent

  2. avatar
    Tom G

    Congratulations to all that had a part in Matt’s development as a player and a young man….! Fenwick High School teaches way more then water polo…. most of all, Congratulations to Matt! What a great story! My the next chapters of your life be filled with success…..!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Tom:

      Thank you for your comments. In my discussions about Matt + his development, I can say that he was part of an amazing network of support that allowed him to realize his full potential. From his family, to his extended family in California, to his coaches in HS and at USA Water Polo and at UCLA, he is the product of an endeavor that all involved with should feel justifiably proud.

      Reflecting on this, my piece celebrates one member of UCLA’s squad, but I suspect that if I were to explore the backstory of ALL the Bruins, I would find equally compelling tales of parents and coaches providing the support and inspiration that results in incredibly accomplished athletes.

      Your correspondent

  3. Dan Galante

    Fenwick is in Oak Park NOT CHICAGO Swimming World Magazine. Get the facts straight. Go shamrocks, beat Fenwick

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Hi Dan:

      I’ve been to Oak Park a couple of times so, no need to remind me that it’s NOT Chicago. However, for readers NOT as well versed in the suburban spread of one of America’s largest cities, sometimes it’s most convenient to identify things by the bigger picture—especially when connecting to the growth of polo in the Chicago region (which sounds better to me than the Oak Park area, but I digress…).

      Having said that, as a Brooklyn resident I can understand your frustration AND your pride of place.

      Regarding Shamrocks vs. Friars, well, I’m not weighing in on THAT one.

      Your correspondent

  4. avatar
    Mike Papierski

    Congratulations to Matt! You are a role model for many, many students striving to make his/her dream come true. I appreciate the dedication, hard work, and commitment you made to make your dream a reality. You should be extremely proud!

    It is inspiring to know there are kids willing to make the short-term sacrifices to reach their long-term goals! Way to go, Matt!

    Thanks for your inspiration!
    Mike Papierski

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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