Ask Team USA member Carter Arey what advice he has to offer when it comes to wheelchair basketball and he quickly responds, “It’s about opportunity. Those who succeed seize an opportunity as it comes along. They don’t let it go.”
In the world of exaggerated, inspirational sports quotes and endless dramatizations that glorify athletes, that advice seems dull. Of course you need to take opportunities. It’s so commonsensical. Or is it?
Four years ago, Carter Arey snuck into the rec center at the University of Missouri in Columbia to play some pick up basketball. He was attending Moberly Area Community College at the time, and often borrowed a friend’s student I.D. to have access to the top-notch facilities and friendly student competition on the basketball court.
Arey had played able-bodied basketball since the age of six, and his skills were further refined by three summers on the AAU travel team. While he was messing around one day in a game of pick up, the head coach for the Mizzou wheelchair basketball team, Ron Lykins, spotted Arey and noticed his prosthetic leg.
News of Arey’s presence in the rec center quickly spread to the rest of the team at Mizzou. “I looked over during a game of pick up one time and about six guys in wheelchairs were on the sidelines watching me play. I went over and introduced myself,” Arey recalls.
While he was quick to say “Hi,” to the players, Arey faced a major decision that took some serious consideration. He was eligible to play, but was he up for the task? “I remember the first day I met with the coaches and I told them ‘I’m not gonna do this unless I do it all out.’” He decided to take the opportunity and never looked back.
Within four years, Arey was the top player on his team. A current team captain, he was recently named the collegiate player of the year this past season. While these accomplishments are an incredible feat in and of themselves, Arey’s biggest career aspirations involved something a bit more: playing for his country.
Since childhood, his mother says that Carter always used to talk about playing for Team USA Basketball. In 2013, Arey was named part of a pool of players who would try out at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO to earn a spot on the 2013 USA Men’s Team that would compete in Colombia in the America’s Cup.
Initially, being named to the group of 28 incredible players was overwhelming enough. “When I made the top 28 I was so excited I initially thought, ‘time to retire!’ Playing on those courts and in the USA jersey was surreal.”
At the tryouts, Arey was a first-time participant and was playing against legends he had heard about from his teammates at Mizzou. “It was crazy. I thought, ‘Damn, I’m going against the guys that everyone at Mizzou talks about.’”
His roommate, Joe Chambers, was undoubtedly one of those big-time players. Despite not knowing anyone at the tryouts, Arey recalls Joe’s willingness to offer advice and feedback every night after practice.
Even though everyone at the tryouts was supportive, Arey recalls his motivation to make a statement through his play. “Wheelchair basketball is a family. A tight knit group. Everybody knows everybody and I came into the sport not knowing anyone. When you get to this level and everyone goes ‘who is this guy?’ it is definitely a major source of motivation.”
While Arey believes that he plays with a chip on his shoulder, his biggest fuel is, at first glance, a bit absurd: his self-proclaimed lack of talent. The first time he “hopped into a chair” Arey was incredibly humbled. He recalls his struggle to develop chair technique and skills on the court. “The learning curve was ridiculous. I honestly believe I got so addicted to the sport because I was so bad. I wasn’t used to being the worst at something and seeing kids push circles around me was hard.”
While he had fantastic basketball skills, because of his frustrating failure to maneuver on the court, he pushed himself hard to catch up as a wheelchair basketball player. “I did a lot of two-a-days and worked on my physical fitness,” he recalls. “I would crush my body on my own time just to get better in the chair.”
Arey credits his hard work and his willingness to learn as his biggest source of success. “I came into this with an open mind and every day I try to learn something. I have to watch more film than any other player out there. I watch YouTube videos of former USA, Great Britain and Australian teams. I’ve seen every single Paralympic game twice.” With a laugh he explains, “I love learning from people. I tried a defensive move that Brian Bell uses last tryout and he was like ‘hey that’s my move!’ We laughed about it later.”
With a fantastic collegiate career under his belt and a gold medal from the America’s Cup last August, Arey has his sights sets on future success with Team USA. “Right now, I’m pretty comfortable with the system that we run and what my role is.”
He lives by his own advice day in and day out. “Take opportunities that come along,” he re-emphasizes. Four years ago Arey took a chance on wheelchair basketball, embraced the opportunity, and now he will represent his country in the 2014 World Championships in Incheon, South Korea this summer. It’s safe to say he practices what he preaches, and his willingness to seize a random opportunity ultimately changed his life.