MU athlete balances wedding plans with basketball

Sunday, January 19, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:01 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 19, 2014
Carter Arey is trying out for the 2014 USA Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team.

COLUMBIA — When Carter Arey proposed to Lauren Okruch in February, the couple began planning a wedding for this May. 

Those plans were interrupted when Arey returned home from a wheelchair basketball practice at the MU Student Recreation Complex with some exciting but problematic news: He had an opportunity to once again try out for the 2014 USA Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team.

If he made the cut, he'd be playing in May for the 2014 USA Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team.

"I was a bit disappointed because it sounded like the best day to me and the spring is so nice," Okruch said. "But it was something that had to be done. Team USA was something I wanted so badly for him."

Arey understood his fiancee's disappointment and made it a point to find out the dates of the national basketball games so another wedding date could be chosen, Okruch said. 

The announcement came in January that Arey, 24, had made it to the second round of tryouts for the USA Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team along with his former teammate John Gilbert. Both men were selected to the 2013 Team USA and competed in the Men's Wheelchair Basketball World Championship in Bogota, Colombia.

Arey and Okruch plan to get married in September.

Balancing relationships

Fanfare often comes with the territory when you're an athlete, but Arey said he tries to keep his life simple. He balances basketball with the things that are most important to him — school and his relationships with family and friends.

"What I love about Lauren the most is that she is so supportive and understanding," Arey said. "She's also an athlete so she can really help me with the psychological side of being a high level athlete."

Okruch, helps him maintain that balance, he said.

They met in 2011 on the rooftop of Harpo's, a bar and grill in downtown Columbia. Arey and Okruch, a former MU softball player, saw each other every now and then around Columbia and became friends. After some time the two became a couple.

"Carter is my best friend," Okruch said. "He can calm me down when I get anxious, and he's always there to make me laugh."

"What I love about Lauren the most is that she is so supportive and understanding," Arey said."

They share a split-level home with two cats and a Great Pyrenees dog named Zoey. On any given night you can find them at their dining room table playing rummy or just sitting on the peach-colored couch in their living room enjoying each others' company, Arey said.

"We just like to be in the same room," he said.

'A giraffe bit it off'

From an early age, Arey had to live with adversity. He was born with a broken right leg, according to previous Missourian reporting. The doctors told his parents that they could either lengthen his leg or amputate it. 

Leg lengthening would have required "grueling and painful therapy," Tracy Arey, his father, said. The doctors also said it would have been difficult because they knew he was going to be tall.

After talking it over, his parents decided to amputate.

A prosthetic piece was used to replace Arey's lower right leg. Arey was able to adapt fairly easily because it happened when he was young, Tracy Arey said.

When he was in junior high school, the differences in his right and left leg drew the attention of some students who didn't understand why they were different.

"He made a joke out of it," Tracy Arey said. "He told them that a giraffe had bit it off."

Arey learned to work through adversity.

"He really tried to prove to everyone that he was capable," Beth Arey, his mother, said. As parents, they supported their son by not "cutting him any slack," she said.

Arey endured 13 surgeries before he was 12 and experienced a lot of pain growing up. He said those experiences taught him lessons that helped him become a better person.

Beginners' basketball

Surprisingly, Arey's first sport wasn't basketball. He played tee-ball when he was in pre-kindergarten, Beth Arey said, but the game moved too slowly for him.

He played soccer and baseball and even played at a couple of Little League World Series games, Tracy Aery said.

When he was 10, he had a plastic basketball hoop. He used to take the video camera and tripod outside to record himself playing. When he was done, he would give a play-by-play commentary on his own game, Beth Arey said.

"You didn't have to worry about motivating him," Tracy Arey said.

When he was a freshman at Rock Bridge High School, Carter Arey was on the basketball team but running drills during practices was too hard on his leg and he stopped playing for the Bruins after one season.

So he started playing basketball for a team that only played during the summer months. The practices weren't as hard on Arey's leg. Arey played on this team, coached by his father, until he graduated from high school.

Trying something new

When his days of playing summer basketball were over, Arey began shooting hoops at the MU Student Recreation Complex for fun, according to previous Missourian reporting. He was attending Moberly Community College at the time, but snuck into the the MU Student Recreation Complex to practice.

That's when Coach Ron Lykins saw his skills and asked him to join MU's wheelchair basketball team.

Arey told his parents about his conversation with Lykins and "totally caught them off guard," Tracy Arey said.

Until then, Arey had always played able-bodied basketball and didn't even know wheelchair basketball existed. The family met with Lykins and discovered that it was not only an opportunity for their son to play basketball again.

"There could not have been a better sport that one could put Carter into that fits him so well," Tracy Arey said.

Dreams of coaching

Arey said he hopes to one day coach his own basketball team. He would like to meet the needs of each individual player because he knows that "everyone needs something different."

He wants to one day instill his virtues in the lives of children. For now, though, "I'm just a hard worker chasing a dream."

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