The North Carolina Courage tradition is to begin each practice with a joke. They don't warm up or kick balls until that joke's been told. In the first training session of 2021, the team stood huddled together on the practice field, wondering who would tell the first one of the season. To everyone's surprise, newly signed defender Carson Pickett said, "I've got one."
"Where do the people with one hand go shopping?" she asks. The team waits for it -- Carson flashes a smile and delivers the punchline. "The second-hand store."
The team, and Carson -- who is missing a left hand and left forearm -- cracked up.
"It was the elephant in the room," says team captain Abby Erceg. "How do you approach someone with one arm? Do you talk to them about it directly? Do you ignore it? You don't know what the rules are. So for her do to that, to break ice with everybody at the same time, was awesome. It was like, ok, she's really cool. You could tell she was making people feel comfortable about her arm. I think that sums up who she is. Rather than her being comfortable, she wants everyone else to be comfortable."
Pickett is the first person with a limb difference to play for the U.S. women's national team -- although when her friends from home first heard the game announcers share that factoid, they were momentarily puzzled. Were they talking about Carson? They've never thought of her that way.
Today she can freely joke about her arm and proudly post pictures on Instagram. The day I sit down with her at the Waldorf Astoria, she is a featured speaker at the prestigious Makers Conference, a leadership event that brings together hundreds of the most powerful women in the world: she is on a stage sharing her experience with a wide audience. But for years, there was no talking about her arm. She never wanted that one detail to be what defined her. She didn't want to be known as the girl with one-arm -- she wanted to be known as the soccer player.
Now she's comfortable being more than that, too.
The beginning: Spartanburg, South Carolina. Treasure and Mike Pickett were P.E. teachers in their mid-20s, making $19,000 a year. Mike coached football for Broome High School -- serious business in South Carolina. (Think "Friday Night Lights.") Truth be told, Mike was a soccer player, but a fledgling P.E. teacher coaches all the things (and drives the buses that carry the teams). In football, he coached the kickers.
"I was like the fifteenth assistant," he jokes. He'd watch game film with the rest of the coaching staff until 2 a.m. on a Friday night even though, as kickers coach, it seemed a little unnecessary. He and Treasure also waited tables at Red Lobster on the weekends to get ready for the baby on the way.
They did not do those final ultrasounds -- they wanted to be surprised. On Sept. 15, 1993, Treasure gave birth to a baby girl, Carson. The nurse wrapped her up in a blanket and said, "Hey Dad, can I see you out in the hallway?"
"The nurse said, 'We've got an issue,' and my heart obviously fell to my feet," says Mike, his voice choking up. "You never want to hear that there's an issue." The nurse unwrapped the blanket and showed her to the new dad -- Carson was missing her left hand and left forearm. It was the result of something called amniotic band syndrome, which happens when part of the birthing sac breaks off. "It's like a floating rubber band that wraps around a body part and prevents it from growing," Mike explains.
"Obviously, it's your baby. You love her no matter what," says Mike. But the first thing he felt was fear -- more specifically, the fear of what this would mean for his daughter. In the hospital room, he and Treasure cried. "And then after that," says Mike, "it was full steam ahead." Within a week, Mike went to work at school with his arm tied behind his back because he wanted to understand what the world would be like for his daughter. The P.E. teacher quickly realized he couldn't do basketball demos, couldn't toss, couldn't catch.
"I basically spent the whole day feeling sorry for myself," says Mike. And maybe that day informs everything: he did not want Carson to feel sorry for herself or to feel limited. "We knew if we coddled her, she'd have no chance," says Mike. In the Pickett house, "Can't" and "quit" are the worst four-letter words you could use.
The Picketts brought Carson everywhere -- to their Friday midnight bowling league with the Red Lobster waiters, to the sideline of the basketball court and the football field. "Everyone would love on her," says Treasure. The football team Boosters adored Coach Pickett and wanted to do everything within their power to help his little girl. They got her into Shriners Hospital: she was the youngest patient to ever receive a prosthetic limb.
She became a special project for all the big-time doctors -- they put enticing toys around the room to lure her over on her new arm. Mike recalls: "She would crawl two steps, it would slow her down, then she'd take it off, chuck it, and take off crawling on her nub with blinding speed around the room. Repeatedly." The doctors were left both laughing and frustrated.
Over the next 10 years, doctors would make her three more prosthetics. She never wore any of them. One was myo-electric, which includes a mechanism to read signals from the brain: when the brain would think about picking something up, it would activate the prosthetic arm. With that hand, she shattered a glass and pinched her father -- "She'd laugh hysterically... and then take it off," says Mike.
One prosthetic was a claw. "She never wore that one -- that would've brought major unwanted attention," her dad says. The last one she got looked uncannily real -- there were veins, you could paint the fingernails. "She probably wore it for ten minutes," says Mike. She was always just happier with what she was born with.
Her "nub," as the family referred to Carson's left arm, didn't feel to her like an impediment. From the beginning, she played all the sports. In tennis she regularly made it to the finals. When a tennis pro did a one-on-one lesson with Carson, he came over to her parents afterward, looking a touch uncomfortable -- searching for words, he finally came out with it: "She's got a hell of a one-handed backhand."
Her mom, a former collegiate basketball player who made it to a final four, coached her in basketball -- Carson was queen of the fast break, able to fire off a shot with her right hand, steadied by her left arm. She swam, too. That one scared her parents the most. She'd come asking -- her friends were doing it -- and they'd gone along with it. "But we worried, 'What if she couldn't stay above water?'" says Mike. Her parents remember that first race -- a freestyle relay. Eight-year-old Carson had the fourth leg, and they were nervous for her. Carson's team was behind by four or five feet when she took off, flying through water, closing the gap: her team won. "That was pretty emotional," says Mike. "We cried for the first day since the hospital."
Then there was soccer: at age six, she'd started playing with a co-ed team on the field a hundred yards from her house where they now lived near Jacksonville, Florida. She played with her three best friends -- Kaili Torres, Hayley Flynn, and Annie Bobbit -- and the rest were boys.
It was fun.
At practice, when they picked teams, the boys fought over the girls, because the girls were better. The boys would slide tackle girls, girls would slide tackle boys, and that was the way they all wanted it. After several years playing for this team, the best friends tried out for the boys' club team, since the girls' program was not strong. At tryouts, the girls played well during the small-sided games and the scrimmages, and both the daughters and their fathers were sure they were crushing it. Of the 70-odd kids trying out, they were clearly in the top 16.
At the end of the tryout, the coaches called out who made each team. "They called your name out and you went and stood with your team," says Carson. "We were all on different teams. I was on the 'C' team. I remember walking from the circle, feeling bad. I thought I'd done everything I could do and it made me feel like I must not be good at soccer after all."
The girls' dads, two of whom are former players themselves, said to the coaching director: tell you what -- put them all on the C team and we'll coach them ourselves for free. The Irish coaching director declined the offer. Girls shouldn't be playing with boys, he said -- girls, in fact, should not be playing at all. Mr. Pickett didn't let that slide, responding: "You want to repeat that?"
So even though you could see the lights of their usual field from outside the Picketts' yard, now the four friends started commuting to a new club -- Ponte Vedra. For the next seven years, they made the 50-minute drive, but they carpooled: there were songs to be sung, homework to be done, meals and secrets to be shared. In the back of Suburbans, they grew up together. They shared the same dreams, which can be intense when you're constantly trying out for ODP teams, returning from a tryout together on a five-hour car ride, when two of you had made it and one of you hadn't.
"Whoever didn't make it would cry the whole way home," says Mike. Hayley Flynn was the first one called into a youth national team -- then Kylie got called in, then Annie. "I waited and waited, and it was hard sometimes because all my friends would go to camp except for me," says Carson.
Mr. Pickett, longtime high school coach, is fond of inspirational sayings. Carson's favorite, the one she'll share with others, is: "Never let someone turn your sky into a ceiling." One year her dad stuck a giant yellow piece of paper in the center of her mirror that read: "You're either getting by or you're getting better." She couldn't do her hair or check her teeth without seeing it. "Sometimes I wanted to rip it down," she admits. (He also taped one up to the mirror in his own bedroom -- a shared mirror. His wife, who was by then a high school principal who probably has such phrases internalized already, said, "This. It can't be here.")
Cue the Rocky-esque training montage: every day after practice, Carson hit 100 to 200 crosses and free kicks. Headers were a weakness, so she and her dad invented a ball-heading contraption -- they screwed eye hooks into one of those floating basketball hoops designed for a pool, and tied balls from both sides of the apparatus: Carson headed one ball and then the other, over and over.
By then, Mr. Pickett was no longer a football coach -- he was coach of the high school soccer team his daughter would eventually play for, but the film-watching from his football days was a habit that continued. Carson, like the coach's daughter in "Remember the Titans," was always looking over dad's shoulder, analyzing game footage. "She watched so much game film," says Mike.
In high school, Carson went on to score 150 goals and had 152 assists. Her best guy friends, who are not soccer players, came to watch her play, although soccer was more or less a mystery to them. When they texted her after games, their lingo was never quite right: "Nice job kicking a goal!" Her friend Joseph Chiafair remembers a game when Carson got whistled for a hand ball. The guys watched from the stands as Carson, talking to the referee, gestured angrily to her left arm, like, I have no hand -- what are you talking about? Meanwhile Coach Pickett shouted from the sideline -- and all the guys in the stands got a good chuckle figuring out what was going on.
"You know, you hear about Michael Jordan being competitive, and I've never met Michael Jordan, but as far as the people I have met, that family is by far the most competitive," Joseph says. "Her dad will challenge you to basketball at lunch break and be in your head before you even start playing. Carson is more of the silent killer."
Carson would eventually get her first call-up to a U.S. national team camp with the U-17s, playing with the likes of Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett. And she would land a scholarship to Florida State University. (Annie signed with Florida and Kailie chose the University of Virginia.) The kids who ate orange slices together at U-6 soccer had fulfilled the dream they'd sketched out in back seats and on fields across the south.
Florida State University has 33,000 people. It is a far cry from how Carson grew up at a K-12 private school where everyone knew everyone. She had 52 kids in her high school graduating class. There, her arm was never a thing.
Way back in kindergarten there'd been some questions. "But kids are direct," says Carson. "They'd ask, 'Why don't you have an arm?' And I'd say, 'I was born that way.' " And that was that. For the most part, no one noticed her arm for the next 12 years. (She was much more self-conscious about the morning announcements, when they called out the stats from each after-school activity, and always the voice would boom out: "Carson Picket with two goals..." She begged her dad, the high school soccer coach, to stop sending in her stats.) But now, as she was introducing herself to a new world of people and a new team in college, Carson wore hoodies with long-sleeves in the dead heat of the Tallahassee summer. She didn't want her arm to affect how people saw her.
"I remember multiple times trying to hide my arm so that they didn't see my arm before they got to know me," says Carson. "I wasn't ashamed of it -- but I wasn't super excited about it either. I wasn't trying to share it with the world."
First and foremost, she wanted to prove herself on the field, and the 18-year-old could defend. She was a master of the set piece, thanks to those hours staying after practice to hit balls. And all that time poring over game film with her dad meant she had extraordinary vision and game-understanding. She could also attack -- she still loves to go forward and can send in a deadly-accurate ball.
Her freshman year, when the team made it to the College Cup, she was excited when she was chosen as one of the players to talk to reporters. But while everybody else was asked about the game, all they wanted to hear from Carson is what it's like to play with only one arm.
As she vented to her mother, Treasure replied: "You can reach so many people with your story. You can use what you were given to inspire others." This marked the beginning of Carson's shift in perspective.
In 2014, Carson's junior year, FSU won the ACC championships, thanks to a headed goal by Carson -- the strange header contraption had paid off. Then, for the first time in school history, FSU won the national championship. In the tournament, no one scored on them. Not a single goal allowed. Carson, leader of the defense, also started their attacks: she led the team in assists with 14 -- the second most in school history.
In 2016, Carson was selected fourth overall in the NWSL college draft by the Seattle Reign. Her professional career had begun -- but the reality was a little bit different than what she probably dreamt as a kid. Her contract was for $12,500.
The tiny-private school kid who went to college an easy drive away was now headed to the other side of the country. "I shipped my car off and got on the plane and I was very, very nervous," says Carson. She didn't know a soul. She lived with a host family 25 minutes outside of town, which meant she didn't see her teammates much off the field. She played with footballing giants -- Megan Rapinoe, Kim Little, Jess Fishlock. Welcome to the big leagues.
Carson was the only rookie who didn't get cut. Pinoe, as Rapinoe is known by her teammates, played in front of Carson, and Pinoe had this way of grinning at you conspiratorially, making you feel welcome and at ease, joking with you until the nerves went away. "Pinoe was why I was okay out there. Plus, Pinoe loves throw-ins," Carson says with a laugh.
Carson hasn't taken throw-ins ever since she was called for an illegal throw in years ago -- Pinoe was like, great, more throw-ins for me! The Reign played on old, hard turf and Carson got plantar fasciitis, although she didn't tell anyone. She just played through it. That's how she does things.
After two years in Seattle, she found herself back in Florida -- to play with the Orlando Pride, where she became a regular starter. Then there's the blur of the pandemic, the lost year, when her team didn't even play in the NWSL Challenge Cup, a tournament designed to replace the regular season for 2020.
Next season, she was traded to the North Carolina Courage where she started and made an immediate impact. Coach Paul Riley described her to the local news channel: "Honestly, she's a much better all-around player than I thought. She fits us really well. She trains like a demon. I've never seen anyone train like her, and I think that's why she's so confident in the games."
Pickett was having her best season yet -- and then in September, the entire league was rocked by the public allegations by two former players that Riley had sexually harassed and coerced them. Riley was immediately fired the same day the allegations were published. Pickett declined to comment for this story on what it was like to have the coach who championed her fired for such dismaying allegations, but she does clarify that it wasn't just Riley who had believed in her and empowered her with the Courage -- the team did, too.
"This was the club that believed that I could be good enough," she says. With the North Carolina Courage, she had found a home. And, with Riley out of the picture, the league -- and the athletes -- continued forward.
Pickett was selected Best XI and among the finalists for the 2021 Defender of the Year award. Then at the start of 2022, the Courage saw a mass exodus of stars with Jessica McDonald, Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams all leaving. The Courage still managed to win the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup -- Pickett was named to the Challenge Cup All-Tournament team. After one Courage game, on the group chat with her high school guys, Joseph texted, "I don't need to know much about soccer to know that this is good."
Debinha gets her goal!— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) September 24, 2022
She rounds the keeper and calmly finishes for 10th of the season. 💫 pic.twitter.com/EthW8Jm3mj
For seven years as a professional, she had consistently started, played well and proven herself in the NWSL. She was unquestionably a veteran. Always, in the back of her mind, there was the hope of getting called up to the U.S. national team. But with each passing year it seemed more unlikely. The national team was looking like the kind of promise you make to yourself when you're a kid that you're unable to fulfill when you're an adult.
In June, Carson was at a Wegmans grocery store in Raleigh when she got a text from U.S. national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski: "Do you have a minute to talk? I'd love to chat with you." Her mind whirled: Why could he possibly be texting me? She finished her shopping in a haze, called him back, and heard the words she'd dreamt of: We'd like to bring you in. He told her they wanted to familiarize her with the system and have her to play in the upcoming games near Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah. "You've waited a long time for this," he told the then-28-year-old defender.
When Carson Facetimed her dad, he was bereft of his usual motivational phrases -- he just beamed at her. Next she called her mom. Treasure is now director of secondary education for Clay County, Florida, and she stepped out of her office to take the call -- she gasped "Whaaat?!" in disbelief. "It was a beautiful moment I will never forget," says Treasure.
On June 25th in Denver, the U.S. played the first of two friendlies against Colombia. Though Treasure and Mike knew it was unlikely that Carson would see the field at all during the friendlies, they flew to Denver anyway, just so they could experience it with her. It was Carson's first U.S. national team camp, and she didn't end up dressing for the match as the U.S. beat Colombia 3-0.
Treasure and Mike were sitting in a coffee shop in Denver on Sunday, the day after the game, when Carson called them with some news: "Mom and Dad, I think I might be starting the next game." A day later, she confirmed: "I'm starting." Suddenly, Treasure and Mike were scrambling and hastily booking travel online. On Tuesday morning, they flew to Utah -- "That's what you do as a parent," says Treasure. "No way we'd miss it."
By Tuesday night, they were sitting in Rio Tinto Stadium for Carson's debut. "That moment she walked out of the tunnel with that uniform... To see her name -- Carson Pickett -- on the board, hear her name announced, nobody will ever know what it feels like unless you've been there, been that parent."
Her chance for a second cap with the U.S. came on Oct. 7: Defender Emily Fox went down in a collision while the U.S. played England, sending her into concussion protocols. At halftime, Andonovski told U.S. Soccer general manager Kate Markgraf to call Pickett.
"We need you in Spain," Markgraf told Pickett. "We booked your ticket. Can you leave tomorrow?" Carson didn't hesitate: "Of course." Heck yeah.
Against Spain, the U.S. lost 2-0. And when you're playing on a backline known for giving up nothing, this was not a good result.
On Oct. 23, the night before Carson was leaving for the Makers Conference, she couldn't sleep because she knew that sometime that night she'd get an email disclosing whether or not she'd been selected for the U.S. national team's next game against Germany, a key friendly nine months before the World Cup next summer. She checked her inbox every hour, waiting for it. The email came in at 2:45 a.m. -- she had not been chosen.
When she was a kid, not making a team had made her feel small and not good enough. But that's not how she feels now.
"Professional sports are cutthroat," she says. "If you don't make it, then you just figure out a way to make it the next time. There's nothing to do about it but train harder and hope that you get a call."
At 4 a.m., she got up to catch an early flight to Orange County, California. At the Makers Conference, seas of influential women walked through the halls. Fellow speakers included Cynt Marshall, the first Black female CEO of an NBA team; Heather Booth, the 76-year-old civil rights activist who has led major social progress campaigns; Katie Porter, the Congresswoman; Mae C. Jemison, the first female Black astronaut -- and Carson Pickett. It's a big deal. She's a big deal.
At dinner that night, tablemates were assigned at random. No one at her table knew a thing about soccer, or that Carson plays it. She sat and listened, taking it all in -- the jobs and passions that were a universe away from her own. "It was so eye-opening to hear what other people do." And when they did come around to talking about soccer, her seatmates knew so little about it that they didn't even know what to ask. "It was a relief not to talk about soccer," says Picket, to have a night being reminded of just how wide the world is.
The featured speakers that night were Hollywood actresses Constance Wu and Jessica Alba. "They were amazing," says Carson. Alba, it turns out, played soccer. She spent a lot of her childhood in hospitals, suffering from bad asthma and allergies, constantly afraid her lungs would close. But that never stopped her -- she just dragged out her breathing machine to the field and played with the boys. The shared quality between all of them is that constant determination to find a way.
The following morning, it was Carson's turn to take the stage. She sat across from Pepper Persley, a 11-year-old sports journalist who has also interviewed the likes of Michelle Obama and Chadwick Boseman. Pickett shared her journey.
She talked about the little boy who came up to her after a game whose arm matched her own, the happiness in his eyes when he realized that her arm was like his, and how the picture the boy's mother snapped of the pair arm-bumping went viral. She described on stage the realization that she wanted to be more out there, to not back away from her own story, to use social media to help others feel more confident: "So, I walked into my roommate's room and I was like, 'Can you come take a picture of me with my arm out? And I want to put it on my Instagram.' "
In her caption on the Instagram post, she wrote: "I want to be an advocate for others like me, and for the longest time I didn't use my platform well enough. Let's all try to love ourselves no matter what we look like and let's all be kind to each other above all else. Different people are my kind of people. The world needs more of that."
At 5:45 the next morning, Carson was doing an interval workout on the treadmill. The gym was crowded -- it turns out many high-power women work out when it's still dark outside. But none of them were moving quite like she was. The Carolina Courage fitness coach wanted the players to work on running at top speed during off season, so Carson Pickett was cranking up the treadmill and sprinting full out. If that phone call comes again from the U.S. national team, she's going to be ready.