Matt Farmer doesn’t know where in South Korea the city of Gwangju is located, but he’ll never forget his stay there earlier this month.
The former Fenwick High School water polo star spent 18 days in Gwangju while competing for the United States at the World University Games.
The U.S. team, which was made up entirely of players from UCLA, defeated Serbia 5-4 in the bronze medal game to secure its first medal in the sport since winning the gold at the 1993 games.
“I couldn’t tell you where (Gwangju) is,” Farmer said. “All I know is it was a three-hour train ride to the site from the airport.
“I’ve traveled abroad several times for water polo. I’ve been to Eastern Europe, Italy and Australia, but this was my most memorable trip.”
Farmer, 20, who earlier in his career had helped the U.S. to fifth place at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Hungary and to third at an event in Italy in 2011, got the chance to compete in South Korea when the U.S. elected not to send its national team to the World University Games.
“(When that happens) the organizers turn to the universities and ask them,” Farmer said. “We ended up being invited.”
UCLA was asked because it won the 2014 NCAA national championship last fall with a 29-3 record. The Bruins had players representing three different countries in South Korea, but the bulk of the team played for the U.S.
Farmer said playing with his college teammates made it easier as well as more memorable.
“I definitely think it did,” Farmer said. “It was definitely great to be able to play with guys I’ve played year-round with. That gave us an advantage over all the other teams.”
Even so, the Americans faced stiff competition from countries where water polo is a national sport. Many sent professional players.
But the U.S. finished with a 6-2 record. Farmer scored a goal in the quarterfinals, setting up a semifinal game against top-ranked Hungary.
“Hungary has won the last four Olympics and last three Worlds,” Farmer said. “(Playing Hungary) is a lot different because you can’t just key on stopping one or two guys. All the players are equal.”
The U.S. gave the Hungarians a battle before losing 4-3.
“It was really fun,” Farmer said. “Going in I was a little intimidated by some of the other teams but my coach said we would compete with anyone and that relaxed us a little bit.
“Every game was competitive and went right down to the end. That made it fun.”
While the action in the pool was memorable, Farmer also was thrilled with the entire experience at the Games, the second largest multi-sport event in the world behind the Olympics.
“I’ve been in such situations before but being in an even to this size for the first time I definitely gained a lot from this experience,” Farmer said. “They had an Athletes Village and set it up like the Olympics. That made it special.
“Each country had their own building. We got to meet athletes from other countries. I think 171 countries were represented.
“For the rest of my life I’ll always remember the Opening Ceremony. We walked into the stadium and every seat was filled.”
Farmer, who will leave next week to begin training for his junior season at UCLA, is enjoying a career filled with experiences most athletes only dream of.
After leading Fenwick to three state championships, he joined a powerhouse UCLA program. After redshirting as a freshman, Farmer became a key contributor as a sophomore, scoring 20 goals, good for 10th on the team. His final goal came in UCLA’s 9-8 win over USC in the national title game.
That experience, combined with his play in South Korea, has Farmer thinking about his long-term prospects.
“I think I played to my ability (in South Korea),” Farmer said. “There were definitely some bigger defenders to deal with. There were some big boys there.”
Since most top water polo players don’t hit their peak until their mid-to-late 20s, Farmer has room to grow and perhaps continue playing after college.
“I really hope so,” Farmer said. “I’m not ready to give up on that. I want to start training with the senior national team in the next couple years. It is going to take a lot of hard work.”
Fenwick coach Kyle Perry won’t put it past him. He ranks Farmer, who is believed to be the first Fenwick athlete to win IHSA and NCAA championships, among the best players in the school’s storied history. The list includes 2009 grads Chris Wendt, who also played at UCLA and in the World University Games, and Matt Napleton, both of whom played professionally in Italy, and Brian Pendergast, who played at Air Force and on the senior national team in the 1990s.
That is heady stuff for someone who initially had to be talked into trying water polo.
“I was a swimmer all my life,” Farmer said. “When we moved to LaGrange I joined the Lyons Swim Club. They had a water polo program and my dad (Jim) formed me to try water polo. I was skeptical at first but once I tried it I realized water polo was the sport for me.”
Water polo excellence all in the family
It was a sport for the Farmer family in general. Farmer’s brother, Danny, who just graduated from Fenwick, is a star in his own right who will play at Bucknell.
“It’s cool,” Matt said of the family tradition. “Part of me really wishes he would have taken a longer look at schools out (on the West Coast) but I think he’ll do well at Bucknell.”
So does Perry.
“I can’t say whether he will start right away, but you’ll see him make a big impact in the next year or two,” Perry said. “There is no reason he can’t be a dominant force like he was at Fenwick.”
Danny Farmer is the fifth Fenwick alum to play water polo at Bucknell. Napleton and Matt Barron were teammates at Bucknell, while Matt Bresnahan will be a junior this fall.
Danny’s graduation marks the end of an era at Fenwick. The Friars won four state titles in six seasons with a Farmer on the roster. After Matt left in 2013, Danny led them to second place in 2014 and third place this spring.
“(Danny did not win as many) state championships that Matt had, but (with) a first, second and third place, he left his mark on our program,” Perry said. “He was a huge reason why we took Loyola to sudden death overtime (in the state final in 2014) and came back from 5-0 down against Stevenson this year (in an 8-7 state semifinal loss).
Perry said the Farmers will be sorely missed but said the best may be yet to come for both.
“They are two great kids who are both very strong academically and they left their mark on the program,” Perry said. “I’m excited to follow the two of them over the next few years. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.