Paul Klee: Air Academy's Abby Farrell to play wheelchair basketball at Illinois

Photo - Air Academy's Abby Farrell poses for a picture while practicing at Villa Sport after school Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. Farrell, who plays on a team in Denver, is preparing to sign with a college. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Air Academy's Abby Farrell poses for a picture while practicing at Villa Sport after school Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. Farrell, who plays on a team in Denver, is preparing to sign with a college. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

DENVER — The really funny part is when somebody tells Abigail Farrell she can't do something.

Good luck with that.

The first time she was told no, Abby couldn't say anything back. She was still in the womb, about five months from being born to Matt and Michelle, when doctors said Abby had something called spina bifida. It's a stupid birth defect that can cause severe physical limitations in the lower body. So she waited a few years to prove them wrong.

"When she was born we never thought this was possible," says Michelle Farrell (Dusserre), her mom, a silver medal-winning gymnast alongside Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics.

"This" is what happens when "no" meets 4 feet, 8 inches of will power: Monday, Abby called the University of Illinois and gave an oral commitment to play basketball in college.

Wheelchair basketball.

And the Air Academy senior won't be done there.

See, here's the thing about Abby Farrell: Give her an inch and she'll take the whole tape measure. Then she'll chop it up, inch by inch, so her peers can use it to test his or her perceived boundaries. Joining one of the top wheelchair basketball programs in the country whets her competitive fix, but to her it's just another strategic move toward her endgame.

"I guess there's a lot of things I want to do," Abby said. "One thing is I want to see more people with disabilities have opportunities in sports. I would love to see enough kids with disabilities want to get involved in basketball so there's more teams to grow the sport. It's growing as we speak, but there's still so much more than can be done."

Rather than waiting around, Abby plans on doing it herself. She's a go-getter like that. It was that way when Abby turned 8 and joined the Pikes Peak Linkers, a youth golf program in Colorado Springs, and when she skied competitively, from a bucket seat, at Winter Park, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. It was definitely that way when Abby was introduced to wheelchair basketball at a summer camp in Aurora. She says the camp changed her life.

"I was like, 'This is cool, because I get to play a sport with other people in my position,'" she says. "I think, for me, I love the team aspect of it. You have to depend on each other."

That's Abby in a nutshell: as if overcoming six surgeries before her first birthday wasn't enough, or traveling to the Czech Republic for the International Wheelchair and Sports World Games, or earning scholarship money to play college basketball at 4-foot-8 ("I'm pretty good on defense, but they can still shoot over me," she says) wasn't enough, she's not content to simply forge her own path. Her jam is bringing others along for their own ride.

"My team (the Denver Rolling Nuggets) was the only team in Colorado. There's other states, like Illinois, that have two or three teams and they can have a state championship," Abby says. "How cool would that be? Hopefully someday we'll have that here."

Abby took recruiting visits to Illinois, Wisconsin-Whitewater and Texas-Arlington. Illinois is a powerhouse on the college circuit, one coached by Paralympic gold medalist Stephanie Wheeler. Abby is determined - if that's a strong enough word — to make sure others have similar opportunities. Credit mom and dad — Matt and Michelle — for doing the parent things. Any time there's college scholarship money involved, there's a good chance the parents were there for guidance and support and rides to practice, and that's especially noteworthy because most of Abby's practices were an hour north in Denver.

It helped that hers is a sports family. Michelle was only 15 when she won that Olympic silver medal we were talking about, and Matt has worked in the sports industry for 20-plus years and now is an executive with USA Swimming. Here's a hunch their greatest contribution to sports will be Abby's contributions to sports — when her dream of giving disabled athletes a louder voice and more available playing fields and courts someday becomes reality.

"The hope is that people can see what she's doing, they may have a child or know of a child and say, 'Gosh I didn't know they could do that,'" Michelle says.

Who's going to say no?


Twitter: @bypaulklee