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No more tears: Twin Cities documentarians focus on the athleticism of adaptive sports athletes

Mallory Weggemann and Jeremy Snyder’s Twin Cities-based TFA Productions aims to change how society views athletes with disabilities, telling stories focused less on hearts and violins and more on sweat and performance.

An image from “Empty Net,” the documentary about Team USA’s dramatic gold medal victory in 2018.
An image from “Empty Net,” the documentary about Team USA’s dramatic gold medal victory in 2018.
TFA Productions

Two-time Paralympic sled hockey gold medalist Declan Farmer isn’t sure where he first saw “Empty Net,” the documentary about Team USA’s dramatic gold medal victory in 2018. Maybe at Princeton University, shortly before he graduated with an economics degree. Or maybe at home in Tampa with his parents.

Either way, Farmer said the documentary, created by Twin Cities-based TFA Productions, struck exactly the right tone. Too often, when able-bodied writers and filmmakers tell stories of adaptive sports athletes, they go heavy on the hearts and violins, portraying the athlete as someone to feel sorry for. It’s cliché. That bothers adaptive athletes, who say there’s too much focus on disabilities — and not enough on their athleticism.

TFA, Farmer said, did none of that with “Empty Net.” Which isn’t surprising, given who co-owns the company: Three-time Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann and her husband, Jeremy Snyder, a longtime agent for Paralympians. Snyder was Weggemann’s agent before they fell in love and married.

“They just told the story from the perspective of, ‘We’re a hockey team, first and foremost,’” Farmer said. “Of course we have unique backgrounds, which is kind of the nature of Paralympic sports and adaptive sports … Our unique backgrounds were just kind of side pieces, more supporting the entire story. That’s how it was in truth, and they showed it perfectly.”

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The Summer Paralympics began last week in Tokyo, delayed one year by the coronavirus pandemic, as the Olympics were. Weggemann, from Eagan, is one of 15 athletes with Minnesota connections competing, a contingent that includes both Team USA Opening Ceremony flag bearers: two-time wheelchair rugby medalist Chuck Aoki of Minneapolis and three-time world champion paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell, an Eden Prairie High grad.

Weggemann got off to a great start, winning the 200-meter individual medley and 100 backstroke in her category, her first Paralympic medals since 2012. Flag bearer Aoki led Team USA to a silver in wheelchair rugby, his third career medal. The Games continue through Sunday.

TFA Productions is the storytelling arm of Snyder’s TFA Group, the agency that represents Farmer, Weggemann and six other Paralympic athletes. After the 2016 Paralympics, Snyder and Weggemann, knowing marriage was in their future, thought about what they wanted to do for the next chunk of their lives.

Both loved storytelling, and each gained experience on opposite sides of the camera — Snyder observing commercials and interviews with clients, and Weggemann as a subject of commercials and interviews. She also did some reporting for NBC at the 2018 Winter Paralympics. (Complications from an epidural injection at age 18 left Weggemann, now 32, a paraplegic, and she suffered permanent nerve and muscle damage in her left arm in a 2014 fall. She gets around in a wheelchair.)

So they decided to make films and short subjects about adaptive athletics, which they felt was underserved. Their aim: changing how society views athletes with disabilities by telling stories focused on their sweat and performance, without ginning up emotions. Make it less about feeling sad for the athlete in the wheelchair or the prosthesis, and more about their badassery on the court or the track or in the pool.

“There’s a feeling that if you live with a disability, the existence of your disability is something that should be pitied and wished away, when in reality sometimes it’s the very thing that gives us the strength that we have,” Weggemann said before leaving for Tokyo. “I’m proud of the four wheels beneath me. I don’t want to wish them away. And I’m not the only one in the disability community who feels that way.

“I think if we can change how those stories are told, we’ll realize as a society the strength of the individuals with disabilities. It’s not sadness. Most of us, we’re not sad about it anymore. It’s just a part of who we are, but it’s not a defining factor.”

“Empty Net” picks up the story of the U.S. team in 2017 with the death of beloved coach Jeff Sauer from cancer. If you’ve never seen sled hockey, the collisions and physicality can be startling. “Like bumper cars on ice” is how Team USA’s Josh Pauls describes it.

Sauer never told the players he was gravely ill, so news of his passing came as a shock. A month later, underdog Canada drubbed the defending champion U.S. 4-1 at the world championships. Farmer and his teammates vowed to win Paralympic gold for Sauer, and did, but not without some drama. The U.S. trailed Canada almost the entire gold-medal game until Farmer, the team’s star, potted the tying goal in the final minute and the winner in overtime.

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Snyder and a production crew of 10 gathered hundreds of hours of footage in Pyeongchang. After returning home, he and Weggemann pitched a sled hockey documentary to an NBC executive, who asked if they could pull it together for the Stanley Cup playoffs six weeks away. They said yes, though neither was sure they could. Synder and his crew scrambled, flying around the country to do additional interviews.

“We didn’t sleep for six weeks,” Weggemann said.

The end of the film includes an observation from goalie Steve Cash that crystalized TFA’s approach: “What we want to do as athletes is use the Paralympics as a platform to show off our abilities rather than our disabilities.”

Three-time Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann and her husband, Jeremy Snyder.
TFA Productions
Three-time Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann and her husband, Jeremy Snyder.
Farmer agreed, adding that’s part of the mission of the Paralympic movement. TFA “knocked it out of the park,” he said. “They certainly put forward the right message and really captured the way we felt about our team and the journey.”

Since then, TFA has produced several well-regarded projects, among them “Fresh Tracks,” selected for film festivals in the Twin Cities, Denver and Vail, Colorado. It’s the story of Paul Leimkuehler, who started an innovative prosthetic business after losing a leg in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge.

TFA’s current documentary project, “Watershed,” tracks Weggemann’s progress from a disappointing 2016 Paralympics (no medals) through her recovery from two major left arm surgeries. She and Snyder delayed starting a family so she could qualify for Tokyo.

The pandemic complicated matters immensely. Weggemann did much of her training in her garage instead of a pool. Then the Japanese government banned most non-competitors from entering the country, leaving Snyder, his production crew and Weggemann’s coach, Steve Van Dyne, stateside. So Snyder arranged with NBC for race footage, outfitted Weggemann with a GoPro camera, and set up watch parties for friends and family via Zoom and FaceTime.

“Every single one of us has a story,” Weggemann said, who finished writing her autobiography, “Limitless,” during the pandemic. “In the disability community, the differentiator is how we tell those stories, the visual language we use, and how that in and of itself can really be a driving force for changing perception and changing the conversation about how we as a society perceive disability.

“In our society, we’re learning language matters. How you position a story through visuals. The type of music that you use. The cut in and out of your actual footage. Are you showing the person first, or the disability, the prosthetic, the piece of mobility equipment first? How are you positioning the camera angles? All these little things that you probably wouldn’t put much thought into unless you understood how that story comes together.”