FSU's Carson Pickett The Picture Of Determination
The first thing you notice in the picture of Carson Pickett is her arm, resting diagonally across her chest as she stands during the national anthem. Her hand covers her heart and the crest on her red, white and blue jersey and pulls your eyes toward the bright color on her fingernails and the tattooed inscription on the inside of her wrist.
That photo helps explains why girls, possessed of the uninhibited wonder and curiosity of youth, approached her in airports and elsewhere early this summer. They saw on her clothes the same crest her hand covered in that picture -- the U.S. Soccer crest -- and they wanted to know if she played for the national team. Pickett would explain that she and the similarly clad women around her were on a United States national team, the Under-23 team (with players born on or after Jan. 1, 1993), which represents the oldest of the youth national teams that feed the senior national team.
No, she would continue, she wasn't on the same team as the superstars the girls adored. Rather, she usually clarified that last part.
"Sometimes," Pickett said with a laugh, "I just let it go."
What isn't visible in that photograph is Pickett's left arm, or the place where the arm should be but isn't. It looks as if it is simply tucked behind her back. Change the angle, and that might be all you notice. This might be a story about someone who wants nothing more than to be like everyone else, to be just another soccer player.
She isn't. She is different. Any player has to be to wear that uniform.
"She's just an absolutely lovely kid, a fantastic success story," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said of the Seminoles player who will be a senior this season. "She certainly tells the world that you may not have all of the advantages that others do, but with hard work and determination, you can achieve at an extremely high level."
U.S. Soccer doesn't keep official records on the subject, but it is probable that when she took the field for the U-23 team as a substitute in the 77th minute against Sweden on May 27 in a game in Fredrikstad, Norway, Pickett became the first player with a physical disability to represent any of the United States women's national teams (defined here by the existing U-17, U-20, U-23 and senior classifications) in international competition.
Pickett was born without her left arm below the elbow. The arm across her chest in the photo, taken before her first international start May 31 against England, is the same one she used to pull on the jersey before that game and fix her long hair into the practical bun atop her head. Never comfortable using a prosthetic arm as a child, she learned to do with one hand the everyday things other people unconsciously do with two. She swam. She played tennis. She did whatever any kid did.
What she did better than most -- what she continues to do as well as the best in the country -- is play soccer.
Pickett helped Florida State win its first national championship in December. One of the best left-sided players in college soccer, versatile as a midfielder or outside back, she started all but one of the team's 25 games the past season and tied for 10th in the nation with 13 assists.
Hers was not a sudden rise. Pickett has been better than most of her peers for a long time. Krikorian first saw her when she was a sixth-grader on the varsity team at St. Johns Country Day School near Jacksonville, Florida. Pickett's dad, a former college soccer player, was the team's coach. But it was pragmatism, rather than nepotism, that put her on the field at that age (the team made the state semifinals that year and won state titles in three of her seven seasons). Florida's high school player of the year as a senior, Pickett was good enough soon enough, in fact, to be invited to national team camps for the U-17 player pool.
Pickett ultimately didn't make that team, and she fell out of the mix as the years went by and the age groups progressed. The national team is every player's dream, but the math is brutal. Even successful players in very good college programs can't count on invitations to training camps with youth teams, let alone the senior team. Sometimes it takes a bit of luck, or at least fortunate scheduling.
Many players in the National Women's Soccer League are still age-eligible for the U-23 team. Although the United States team at a February tournament in Spain included some college standouts, such as Cheyna Williams, Pickett's teammate at Florida State, it was primarily composed of high-profile NWSL rookies. Given that the four-team tournament in Norway fell during the NWSL regular season, U.S. Soccer used it as an opportunity to expand the player pool. So it was that Pickett found herself among many new faces trying out for 20 roster spots in a one-week camp in April in Florida.
Pickett left the camp not knowing what would come of it, with the final roster still up in the air. She returned to Tallahassee and prepared for final exams and the trip home to Jacksonville. A strong student who will graduate a semester early, she tried not to obsess about her roster fate. Then she woke up on the morning of her last exam and saw a new email with the roster for the trip to Norway. Her name was on it. What followed was not, she admitted, the most composed exam she ever took.
"That was a really good day," Pickett said.
The U.S. national system, from Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger on the World Cup team down through the ranks of the youth teams, favors aggressive, attack-minded outside backs. Pickett fits that description and brought an ability to play multiple positions to a small roster that would have to play three games in six days.
"You can talk about the technical pieces," U-23 coach and Illinois coach Janet Rayfield said. "She's got a great left foot, she's got good pace, she reads the game well. Her service from the left flank is very good. She's a good individual defender. And she's pretty versatile. She can play anywhere up and down the flank. But she's also just tenacious. She's one of those competitive people that doesn't like to get beat, so you've got that psychological piece to her game that I think helps her in that environment."
In those surroundings, with the opportunity of a lifetime within reach, some players are overwhelmed by fear of making a mistake and ruining everything. Rayfield said Pickett stood out as someone who saw an opportunity for what it was and understood life would go on either way.
"I think she embraces those a little bit easier than someone who hasn't dealt with [a disability], so to speak," Rayfield said.
After her debut as a substitute in the win over Sweden, Pickett didn't see the field in the second game, a draw against Norway. With the tournament title up for grabs, she started and played the full 90 minutes in the finale, a 2-1 win over England. There are moments from that game that she can still replay in her mind, small things such as reading a goalkeeper's throw and sprinting out to apply pressure or make a tackle on the wing. But it was the anthem that her dad talked about before she left. And it was hearing the anthem, even in a sparsely populated stadium in a tournament overshadowed by the one about to start in Canada, that stuck with her.
"I had another understanding and realization that I was there to represent the United States," Pickett said. "That's just the best feeling. I can hardly explain it."
It's getting easier for her to understand her effect on others. When she was a freshman at Florida State, Pickett talked about being unsure how to respond when people asked about the message of her story. She was used to the curious looks and the questions that often follow, but she wasn't trying to deliver a message about living and thriving with disability. If she braided her hair with one hand, it was because she needed to braid her hair. There was no greater meaning. She just lived her life as she always had.
"My freshman year, I would get asked a lot," Pickett said. "Obviously, I wouldn't care, just because I would be curious too. But throughout my time at Florida State, it really has changed my life. Now instead of people asking me what happened, I have people telling me through Instagram, Twitter, direct messages that I'm their inspiration, and they've been watching me for three years, and they can't wait for this upcoming season."
The depth of the stories people tell amazes her. People who don't know her at all are willing to share their personal stories, fears and triumphs. They feel safe telling her.
"I think they forget that when they tell me their stories that I can get just as inspired by them," Pickett said. "That's one of the biggest things that I've learned is I can be inspired by people who I'm inspiring."
She is simultaneously a long way from the senior national team and closer than most players will ever get. In the best scenario, any given U-23 team could have a handful of players who will eventually see the field for the senior team. Those odds are lengthened by the youth and inexperience of the roster that went to Norway. More proximate is Pickett's senior season for the defending national champions and the opportunity to further catch the eye of coaches and general managers in NWSL.
She never wanted sympathy. And she doesn't get any on the soccer field.
People don't make national teams, NWSL teams or NCAA championship teams out of sympathy. They make them by being different from everyone else, by being the best.
"I want to get a shot at the next level and a shot with the national team," Pickett said. "I just hope and pray that at some point I will get a shot, and I'll go in there and hopefully prove myself. That's my dream."