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July 11, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Carter Arey pulled his headphones out and took a moment to let it all sink in — he had just been selected as one of the top 28 wheelchair basketball players in the U.S. and was soon headed for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to try out for the team.
Three years ago, Carter was a student at Moberly Area Community College. He worked at Domino’s and lived for the weekends. If anyone had told him then that he would play wheelchair basketball at an international level, or any level, he would have laughed.
The 23-year-old Columbia native previously played able-bodied soccer and baseball with a prosthetic leg but now feels he’s found his favorite sport. Wheelchair basketball. He describes it as a mix of basketball and hockey. Players are strapped into 20-pound wheelchairs — he calls his the Death Machine. They barrel toward one another at speeds similar to running and frequently collide.
Carter once broke his knuckles while playing wheelchair basketball. Hand injuries are common in the sport — chairs collide, digits are entangled in the wheel spokes, and no one uses gloves or wheel covers. Carter has anywhere from five to 30 blisters on his hands, but gloves, he says, will get you laughed at on the court not to mention that gloves also impair ball handling skills.
“I got in the chair the first day, and it was just unlike anything else,” Carter says. “You know, you’re in P.E. with those little square things with wheels on the bottom just flying at your friends? … It’s that fun. We smile, we laugh out there every day, and we go to work.”
For Carter, playing the sport he loves is his job. It helps pay for school and will hopefully lead to a long career playing professionally around the world. He dedicates up to 45 hours a week to the sport during the season. After long days of practicing, he returns home to a house with a conspicuous lack of basketball paraphernalia.
“I don’t want to come home to a trophy room,” Carter says. “I know what I’ve earned, and I don’t want to come home to anything like that. And right now, basketball’s work. It’s my entire life. As crazy as that sounds, I’m a full-time basketball player.”
It’s been a busy year for Carter. Many college students struggle just to make grades, but Carter played for the school’s wheelchair basketball team, made Team USA, got engaged, bought his first house, earned his real estate license and is planning to travel to South America for the first time.
Leaning back on the couch in his new living room, he doesn’t seem like a professional athlete with a jam-packed schedule. His year-old Great Pyrenees, Zoey, lies at his feet, and Louis Armstrong, Zoey’s favorite musician, plays in the background. He’s a laid-back guy — until you bring up the topic of sports.
Carter was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, which caused him to have a short femur. His parents had to decide whether to lengthen the bone through surgery, which would prevent him from ever running on it, or have doctors amputate his right leg and give him a prosthetic. His parents, Beth and Tracy Arey, met with physicians, prosthetic departments and other amputees. They were inspired by a little girl who was an amputee and much more active than children who had bone-lengthening surgeries. They decided to amputate Carter’s right leg below the knee when he was 4 years old. Carter is positive they made the right choice.
He picked up able-bodied basketball as an 8-year-old, eventually playing competitively during his years at Rock Bridge High School. And even though he’s still “stuck on basketball,” the sport has changed quite a bit for him.
Carter noticed the wheelchair basketball players watching him shoot hoops as an able-bodied player. He knew they were interested in him because they saw his prosthetic and would qualify as a para-athlete, so he hot-shotted around the court for them at the MU Recreation Complex. Soon after, he was approached Ron Lykins, who coaches both the Mizzou wheelchair basketball team and men’s Team USA.
“We wanted him to play right away,” Lykins says. He saw Carter’s potential; Carter’s shooting, ball handling and court vision made him a valuable player — he just had to learn how to wield a wheelchair. Carter liked Lykins, he wanted to travel, and he was excited to wear Mizzou across his chest, a childhood dream of his.
Carter had never seen a game of wheelchair basketball played until his first shooting workout. He quickly discovered the huge learning curve. The change from standing to sitting down threw him off. A free throw felt like a three-point shot at first. Lykins started him two feet away from the hoop. He moved him back five feet, to the free throw line and eventually to the three-point line. Carter could see Lykins getting excited that he was doing well, and six weeks later Carter was playing for Mizzou.
For the first year, he had to build up his chair skills, such as agility, speed and tilting, using his body weight to shift the chair side to side to outmaneuver an opponent. Although he’d used a wheelchair before, he wasn’t as familiar as teammates who use them every day. If wheelchair basketball is like basketball and hockey, his learning experience was like playing hockey without knowing how to skate.
It was frustrating. He had never played a sport he wasn’t good at right away, and mastering this new one became an addiction. The desire to catch up with his teammates drove him harder than anything he’d ever felt.
Since he began playing, he’s been incorporating his style of play from his years of able-bodied basketball, which he says gives him a competitive edge in the world of wheelchair basketball. “Able-bodied basketball is very flowing,” he says. “You can get around picks really easily, you don’t get stopped as much … even though it’s a contact sport, you don’t get as much contact. (With wheelchair basketball) I try to turn it into a flowing game.”
During an afternoon shooting hoops at the Rec, Carter perches his 6-foot-3-inch frame on a $3,500 PER4MAX wheelchair and glides around the court in graceful arcs. He throws the ball out in front, clear of the chair’s angled wheels, and flies after it with a perfectly measured push. At varying distances and angles from the net, he swivels on the spot and shoots, predominantly right-handed. Later, when he switches from his Mizzou-emblazoned playing prosthetic to his everyday prosthetic leg and stands, he doesn’t try to sink any more baskets.
“I feel like I owe it to my team and my coach that I don’t mess around with my shot,” he says. During his first month on the team, he shot standing baskets before practice. When practice started, he got in the chair and couldn’t make any. Carter took the lesson to heart. He didn’t take another right-handed shot standing up for three years.
Carter knew from the start of his career that he wanted to play for Team USA.
“I wasn’t going to play the sport if I wasn’t going to give it my all,” he says. Striving to make the national team kept him intrigued. “If you don’t expect great things of yourself, you’re not going to be able to achieve them.”
He had hoped to make it on the team in time for the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil, so getting the call after only three years of play was a surprise. Several members of Team USA have played the sport for 20 years, and other members of Mizzou’s wheelchair basketball team applied for the team but didn’t make it. All of his teammates have played wheelchair basketball longer than Carter.
When he found out he made the top 28, he was excited to train on courts “where the legends play.”
He knew he would have to prove himself, but it turned out to be harder than he imagined after he was injured on the first day at the training center. While using a bench press to lift weights, a trainer mistakenly gave him 150 kilos instead of 150 pounds. He immediately felt a burning pain as his right pectoral muscle tore.
At that point, he hadn’t even been on the court yet.
“‘This is my first run at (Team USA), and I’m injured?’” he says. “To say I was mad would be an understatement.”
But it didn’t stop him.
“I wasn’t going to look back on this opportunity and say I didn’t try,” Carter says. He spent the rest of the week pressing an ice pack to the muscle or shooting left-handed. He had trouble getting into his playing mindset as he tried to work through the pain.
“Carter has always faced adversity since he was born,” Beth Arey, Carter’s mom, says. “So for him to play through this injury and the pain isn’t new for him.”
Amid 13 surgeries on his leg and hip throughout his life, his parents made sure he didn’t view his prosthetic leg as a setback. Because he spent his first three years of walking with a brace that prevented him from bending his leg, the prosthetic actually allowed him to be more mobile.
“They didn’t see me as disabled or anything,” Carter says. “They just saw me as their son, and ‘If he can’t learn to ride a bike this way, let’s try a way that he can,’ or have me figure it out on my own.”
Growing up, Carter’s challenges on the court were more social than physical. “I had to prove myself over and over again,” he says. “I mean, who’s gonna pick up the kid with a prosthetic? ... So I just picked up the ball and scored.”
His teammates learned to give him the ball because opponents didn’t guard him early and always made assumptions about him. It created motivation that prepared him for playing at an elite level.
“It’s not about basketball,” Tracy Arey, Carter’s father, says. “It’s about who he is.”
Beth and Tracy never considered their son playing disabled sports and were surprised when he approached them about playing for Mizzou.
“‘You’re not in a wheelchair, so why are you playing wheelchair basketball?’” he says his father asked.
On the fifth day of the Colorado Springs camp, the athletes gathered in a small conference room. Carter and Jorge Sanchez, another college player hoping to make the team, had bonded over their rookie status before the camp. That day, they sat next to each other awaiting the announcement of who would make the 20-member team.
They heard their names back to back.
“I was not expecting to hear my name called,” Carter says. “It was one of those things where I was just like, ‘Whoa, what are they thinking?’”
Carter is the third-youngest member of the 12-person team flying to Bogotá. He found out he would be a traveling member of Team USA after another camp at the University of Texas-Arlington, which he describes as being a lot more fun with more off-the-court bonding. Because the last cut had decided who made the team, waiting for the announcement of who would travel was less intense. Carter knew that if he didn’t get to travel, he would still have a chance to go to South Korea for the World Championships in 2014.
“I didn’t cry over this, but I teared up when they named me to Team USA,” Carter says. His father, a former basketball coach, still chokes up with pride when talking about his son being named to the team; his mom is his cheerleader.
Carter’s parents and his fiancee, Lauren Okruch, will be joining him in Bogotá. He’s excited about the architecture and the summer festival. He’ll be busy with games every day watched by thousands of spectators.
Carter says the pressure of playing for Team USA is greater than that of playing for Mizzou. He envisions the starting lineups and the national anthem before a game and looking at opponents wearing jerseys from Argentina. “That’s what I want to play in front of,” he says. “That atmosphere is the best.”
Carter has another busy year ahead.
“I’ve learned so much this past month, two months for Team USA, I really feel like I can step into a leadership role finally,” he says. Because the international style of play is faster and more intricate, he plans to bring that level of play to his MU teammates when the season starts up again in the fall. In the meantime, Carter will work on his general studies and sports management majors at MU. He’s determined to one day be a coach, too.
Carter’s focused on getting better. “He’s playing against some of the best players in the world, and he learns something new every practice,” Lykins says.
Carter counts himself lucky to have worked with the same coach for his entire wheelchair basketball career. “I’ve learned his way, his style only, and right now he’s the best coach in the United States, so that’s a huge head start,” he says.
The next steps will be the World Championships in South Korea in 2014, qualifying for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and eventually the Paralympics themselves. He’ll have to try out for Team USA again each time. “I’m nowhere near being done with this sport,” Carter says. He has two more years as an eligible player at MU. “I’m gonna take advantage of it.”