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MU Wheelchair Basketball player brings athletic experience to team

Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 8:09 p.m. CST; updated 12:33 p.m. CST, Friday, March 2, 2012
Carter Arey shoots during a scrimmage Thursday at the MU Student Recreation Complex.

COLUMBIA — Carter Arey had good reason to be excited.

The MU Wheelchair Basketball team just won both games of its doubleheader against the Kansas Wheelhawks, and he had performed well. He scored 42 points for MU in the two games combined, including 25 in the second one.

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After almost 80 minutes of pushing his chair up and down the court, driving to the basket and scoring, Arey was understandably exhausted.

But when he wheeled off the court after the second game, he still had the energy, and the ability, to do something anyone watching the competition wouldn't expect.

He unstrapped himself from his chair, stood up and launched himself into the air in a perfectly executed chest-bump with a friend, landing gracefully before walking to the locker room.

Arey, a junior at MU, was destined to be a Missouri athlete. Born and raised in Columbia, one of his first articles of clothing was a Missouri Tigers bib. His first word was ball, and he has been living the student-athlete lifestyle since he started playing little league baseball in the first grade.

But before Arey ever began his athletic career, he lost his right foot.

While still in his mother's womb, Arey broke the femur in his right leg, which caused it to grow slower than his left. When it never caught up, doctors decided the difference could be corrected with a prosthetic foot. So when Arey was 4 years old, they amputated his right foot and replaced it with a prosthetic.

Today, it's difficult to notice it. There is no limp, no crutches, no noticeable physical difference. Unless he were to lift up his right pant leg and showyou the prosthetic foot and sleeve that runs up his calf, everything seems normal.

"It's like putting on a shoe," Arey said. "It's kind of just there for me, and I don't ever really think about it honestly."

Because he is only missing his foot and has had the prosthetic since such a young age, Arey said it did little to hinder his athletic ability.

So little, in fact, that the way he ended up playing for the MU Wheelchair basketball team was almost as accidental as his prenatal injury.

Arey played both varsity basketball and baseball during his years at Rock Bridge High School. He turned down offers to play baseball for nearby Longview College and Northwest Missouri State University to attend Moberly Area Community College, favoring a change of pace from the student-athlete lifestyle he had led for so long.

It was while he was enrolled at MACC that the chance to play for the MU Wheelchair Basketball team sneaked up on him.

Arey had established a routine of sneaking into the MU Student Recreational Complex to play pickup basketball with friends from high school. While he was playing one afternoon, MU Wheelchair Basketball head coach Ron Lykins happened to walk by and notice Arey's prosthetic leg.

"It made my day, believe me," Lykins said. "You get a kid who knew how to play basketball, and you could just tell that he was a really good player. And as athletic and big and strong as he is, it was just a matter of time for him to learn the chair, and we could teach him that."

Arey jumped at the chance to play. He signed on two days after Lykins recruited him and transferred from MACC to MU at the end of the year to play wheelchair basketball on a partial scholarship.

Lykins said Arey is one of the most talented players he has seen transition to wheelchair basketball. After his first workouts with the team, Lykins knew he had a serious player on his hands.

"I put him at the free-throw line, and he was nailing free-throws. So I put him at the 3-point line, and then he was draining threes," Lykins said. "That usually doesn't happen quickly because it's a tough thing to do."

Now, two seasons into his career at MU, Arey is the team's second-highest scorer even though he comes off the bench behind fellow "4s" Brendan Downes and Jacob Wiig. A "4" is the most able-bodied rating a player can have on a wheelchair basketball team, and a team can only have 13 total points on the court at all times.

Lykins' strategy behind bringing Arey off the bench is similar to the Missouri men's basketball team's strategy with Michael Dixon. He functions as a sort of sixth starter and provides a boost of energy whenever he is on the court.

Unlike many athletes who can play both able-bodied and wheelchair sports, Arey never hesitated to transition to wheelchair basketball.

"Sometimes there's a big resistance because they see the chair and all they think about is, 'Hey, I don't need a chair, I don't have a disability,'" Lykins said. "But what eventually happens is they start seeing that a chair is just a piece of athletic equipment, and that's what kind of gets them like, 'Oh OK, I get it now.'"

Though he played able-bodied sports his entire life, Arey is just as happy, if not more so, playing intercollegiate wheelchair basketball.

The MU Wheelchair Basketball team doesn’t operate through the NCAA. There is no wheelchair basketball program through the association, but former state senator Chuck Graham of Columbia put a specific line-item into the state budget 12 years ago to establish a wheelchair basketball team at MU.

"To play at Missouri on a scholarship and have Missouri on my chest means more to me than I can put into words,” Arey said. “When you grow up in Columbia, and you're surrounded by all this, that's what you hope is the end result of your practice and all that."

Even though he is the second leading scorer on the team, Arey still said he wants to improve his game. Adjusting to dribbling the ball while pushing the chair and being quick is something he is still focusing on after two years of playing the sport.

"Making the transfer between regular sports and wheelchair sports was extremely hard," Arey said. "It was a challenge that I didn't hesitate in accepting and has been very fulfilling because it's something that I can see progress in, which is really cool."

Lykins also knows Arey has room to grow, but he is impressed with how well the junior has adjusted to wheelchair play after competing in able-bodied sports for his entire life.

"He's playing against guys who have played five, six, maybe 10 years, so to just try to hop into something like that, it's really difficult to do," Lykins said. "Things are really starting to click for him."


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