Pickett, who was born without a left forearm and hand, has turned what some might label a weakness into strengths that have developed her into one of the nation’s top young defenders.

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Carson Pickett knows well the outsized impact of a first impression and is all too aware of how quickly a stranger sizes her up in a split-second.

She can sense the burn of their gaze. She feels as it moves from the ponytail she tied up herself and away from the painted nails on her right hand, toward her empty left sleeve.

“First Coast soccer player with disability still flying toward her goal”

— Jacksonville.com headline, Oct. 29, 2011

The Seattle Reign’s newest first-round draft pick barely lets on, the only indication a furtive run of fingers through brown hair. She got used to the stares long ago, through 22 years of practice, but that doesn’t make them easier to bear. Sometimes, she’ll admit, it’s damn hard.

“As much as you don’t care, you do care a little,” Pickett said.

“ ‘Game on’ for one-armed midfielder Pickett as FSU chases NCAA title”

— Palm Beach Post headline, Dec. 4, 2014

She won three prep state soccer titles at St. Johns Country Day in Jacksonville, Fla., reaching three additional Final Fours during her seven years as a letter winner, none of which are typos. Pickett helped lead Florida State to its first national championship. But through all the accomplishments, attention inevitably would turn back on her disability — their word, rarely hers.

“Women’s Soccer: Florida State’s Carson Pickett excels despite birth defect”

— NCAA.com headline, Dec. 3, 2015

Said Pickett, who was born without a left forearm and hand: “I would see my friends getting interviewed, then they’d bring me over. It was always about my arm, and the questions weren’t the same questions they were being asked.”

Following a standout college career, however, and at the dawn of her professional career, Pickett has realized her platform is a blessing rather than a burden.

Meet Carson Pickett, who has turned what the world might label a weakness into strengths that have developed her into one of the nation’s top young defenders.

Seattle Reign FC defender Carson Pickett laughs during soccer practice on April 11, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seattle Reign FC defender Carson Pickett laughs during soccer practice on April 11, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

‘It’s all that I know’

Little Carson stared up at the monkey bars at her Jacksonville playground, vexed by a challenge as daunting as she had faced in her seven years.

Doctors had fitted her with her first prosthetic left hand when she was six months old. She stared at it quizzically, tearing it off before crawling quickly across the shag carpet under her own power.

“I have one that looks identical to my right hand,” Pickett said. “And I hate it. It just gets in my way. I’ve only ever known one hand. People will ask, ‘How do you deal with one hand?’ Well, how do you deal with two? It’s all that I know.”

She taught herself to tie her shoes, paint her nails and ride a bike via plenty of bumps and bruises. Her parents occasionally were frustrated by their inability to provide guidance — having traced the world with both hands, it was as though they were speaking in a foreign tongue.

Her mother, Treasure, was a high-school principal, necessitating early mornings and leaving her father, Mike, to fix up his daughter’s hair for school. One day, he walked in and found Carson already rocking braids.

“I did it,” his young daughter beamed. “I figured it out myself.”

Mike, her future soccer coach and physical-education teacher, was by her side that day at the playground, too. She looked up at playmates going hand-by-hand over the monkey bars and turned to him for guidance.

There was but a single rule in the Pickett household: a metaphorical swear jar reserved for the word “can’t.”

So despite his reservations, and Mike not having the slightest clue how she’d pull it off, he nudged Carson toward the playground — Go on, then.

“She swung out there with one hand on one bar and put her nub on the other one,” Mike said. All the way from one end to the other.

“Ever since then, everything she does amazes us, but it doesn’t surprise us.”

Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett starts her day with a usual breakfast of a toasted English muffin with peanut butter and honey, and then she does some writing. She does a devotional, keeps to-do lists and writes down restaurant names for when her parents visit, checks her planner for her workouts and keeps a personal journal. “I’m a very big planner,” she said, smiling. She then jumps on her iPad to catch up with social media and post updates, as she is an ambassador for Play Like a Girl, a non-profit organization and campaign to get girls empowered through fitness and sports. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett starts her day with a usual breakfast of a toasted English muffin with peanut butter and honey, and then she does some writing. She does a devotional, keeps to-do lists and writes down restaurant names for when her parents visit, checks her planner for her workouts and keeps a personal journal. “I’m a very big planner,” she said, smiling. She then jumps on her iPad to catch up with social media and post updates, as she is an ambassador for Play Like a Girl, a non-profit organization and campaign to get girls empowered through fitness and sports. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

A knack for the game

Fans attending Seattle’s season opener against Sky Blue FC at Memorial Stadium on Sunday will spot a rookie left back with endless hustle and a hammer of a foot. A college teammate says Pickett’s shot is as stinging as any she has faced, and left-footed defenders are to soccer what left-handed pitchers are to baseball.

People will ask, How do you deal with one hand?’ Well, how do you deal with two? It’s all that I know.”

But what makes Pickett so frustrating for opposing attackers — and why Reign coach Laura Harvey listed her at the top of her draft board — is how difficult she is to break down off the dribble. Try all your tricks: swiveling left and right, throw out a stiff-arm, slow down then speed back up again.

Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett piggybacks on midfielder Havana Solaun during a fun drill at practice April 11, 2016. Pickett and Solaun are good friends — the two met while playing tennis as kids in Florida. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett piggybacks on midfielder Havana Solaun during a fun drill at practice April 11, 2016. Pickett and Solaun are good friends — the two met while playing tennis as kids in Florida. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

“It’s such a discredit to her to say, ‘Look at how good she is despite the fact that she has one arm,’ ” said Pickett’s high-school teammate, Sarah Voigt, who played at Notre Dame. “It’s a non-factor. She’s so good because of her ability and her work ethic. … I think it’s really discrediting and really missing out on everything she’s been able to accomplish.”

Pickett said off the field people occasionally pre-emptively label her as innocent or fragile — at least until they get a taste of her understated wit. Once, during an adolescent tennis lesson, an instructor complimented her one-handed backhand.

“Well,” Carson responded after a beat, “obviously,” busting up everybody on the court.

On the field, good luck trying to beat her on the wing.

“I’ve always been able to force players to the outside to my stronger right hand,” Pickett said. “You can physically see that I don’t have a limb. In most cases, it’s put me on a different level than everyone else. Soccer-wise, I don’t think it’s something that’s a weakness. It’s not, ‘Force her one way, and you’ll get it.’ It’s not something that puts me below anyone else.”

If anything, it has helped her to become a more formidable defender than she might have been.

A Reign teammate picked up on something else during the first few days of training camp: Pickett’s innate read for the game, how she beats players to a spot before they realize play is flowing that way.

“I think I read the game really well because I have to,” Pickett said. “I don’t want to get myself into this big, physical battle. If I read the game, and I’m already there — I don’t have to.”

Reign defender Carson Pickett controls the ball around UW’ forward/midfielder Miranda Rawlings during a preseason friendly on April 9, 2016.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Reign defender Carson Pickett controls the ball around UW’ forward/midfielder Miranda Rawlings during a preseason friendly on April 9, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Comfortable with her story

Pickett’s snappy comebacks aren’t reserved for well-meaning tennis coaches. Asked whether she ever feels restricted on a soccer field, she has a ready response: “I usually just don’t do throw-ins.”

But though her friends insist they have never seen her struggle with her body image in a social setting — “(If it bothered her) she must have done a pretty good job of hiding that,” says Voigt — it wasn’t always quite so easy to play off privately.

“I was self-conscious,” Pickett said. “I wore jackets in college and when was younger, if I was going out with my friends somewhere.”

Her college experience was, as is often the case, formative.

Pickett’s high-school graduating class at St. Johns Country Day was 52 students. She speaks gratefully of the “bubble” of her youth, co-ed neighborhood pickup games on the cul-de-sac, how soccer allowed her to form an identity outside of what others might have prescribed for her.

But her freshman year at Florida State was a challenge. For the first time, she was forced to explain what her childhood friends had accepted without probing questions. She toiled through lecture-hall classes dwarfing the sizes of her high-school equivalent and took some time to form a circle of fellow athletes she’d come to compare with her childhood bubble.

Her junior season was a breakthrough, a standout campaign that led to a call-up to the U.S. U-23 national team.

“That gave me the confidence to realize that people wanted to know me because of my story,” Pickett said. “It’s not that anyone ever said anything or did anything, it was just me. I knew I was different than everyone else.”

Eventually, the jacket came off.

“It’s almost like I wore the jackets because I wanted someone to get to know me before they knew that I had one arm,” Pickett said. “That’s one of the biggest things that I had to learn. My arm is my story. That is me. That was pretty cool, when I finally understood that and got comfortable with that.”

Rookie left back Carson Pickett, middle, starts with the Seattle Reign for a home preseason friendly against the University of Washington women’s team on April 9, 2016.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Rookie left back Carson Pickett, middle, starts with the Seattle Reign for a home preseason friendly against the University of Washington women’s team on April 9, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

An inspiration

Pickett has fairly typical career goals for a budding soccer star: Win an NWSL title with the Reign, earn a U.S. women’s national-team call-up, play in a World Cup with the defending champs, maybe parlay all that success into a post-career broadcast job with ESPN. Another is atypical: Use her experience and visibility to spread the message to anyone who might face a similar struggle that they, too, can push through.

“I want people to know that while it’s considered a disability, it’s not,” Pickett said. “I can do anything that anyone else can do. There hasn’t been one thing I haven’t been able to do without my arm. You can always fight through it. You can always figure out a way.

“It’s an awesome thing to achieve something somebody else doesn’t think you could. You hear that a lot. It’s kind of a cliché. But it’s true. Many people are going to doubt you because they don’t understand. But stick with it, and know you can do it higher than any expectations.”

Part of Pickett’s willingness to take on a more-public stance was due to the letters she received on the back end of her Florida State career describing her as an inspiration. She befriended a local middle-school student named Erica Silvey, a soccer standout on her own right who was born without a fibula in her left leg.

“Carson is kind of a fan favorite, not only because of her situation,” former Florida State teammate Cassie Miller said. “People look up to her. And I think she would get the same reaction regardless.

“She’s the one that people gravitate towards. She should be the person to shine.”

Seattle Reign FC defender Carson Pickett works out at practice on April 11, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seattle Reign FC defender Carson Pickett works out at practice on April 11, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Letting her try

Mike and Treasure had foregone an ultrasound scan while she was pregnant, not wanting to spoil the surprise of their first child’s gender. So when Carson arrived on Sept. 15, 1993, their first impression was similar to the ones their new daughter would later fret over.

They shed a few tears in those early moments, they admit, mom worrying whether their baby girl would struggle to get dates when she got older, dad wondering whether he’d ever be able to pass along his love of sports.

Though the word “can’t” was a non-starter, even Mike and Treasure said occasionally questioned how realistic that message was.

Then one day, 7-year-old Carson asked whether she could join her friends on the swim team. For a split-second, her parents hesitated before reverting to a similar refrain — Go on, then.

Her first meet, as the anchor leg of her four-swimmer relay, Carson jumped off the blocks into the water five body lengths back. Gradually gaining speed, she chased down her opponents and reached out to touch the wall in first place.

“Of all the things we let her try, that was the one that scared us the most,” Mike said. “We didn’t even know if she’d been able to swim. We haven’t shed a lot of tears in her life, but her first swim meet was another one of the moments we did.”

Carson bounded up to them afterward, hair still dripping.

“Why are you crying?” she asked, nonplussed.

“We won.”

Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett’s long ponytail blows in the breeze during soccer practice on April 5, 2016.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seattle Reign defender Carson Pickett’s long ponytail blows in the breeze during soccer practice on April 5, 2016. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)