Sleep didn't come easily to Carson Pickett the night before Florida State's opening game this season, the first of the freshman's college career. From strangers in the airport who wished her well upon spotting her Seminoles gear to the plush hotel in Minnesota, the sights and sounds of a road trip had only amplified a caffeine-like rush that left her wide awake to ponder what the game would bring, how fast it would feel, how long she had waited for it.
Yet even such sleepless anticipation proved insufficient preparation for the feeling that came when she pulled on her No. 16 jersey the next day.
"The first time you actually get to wear a jersey, it's honestly breathtaking," Pickett recalled. "Going to warm-ups in front of all those people -- and we had fans there even though it was so far away -- and everyone doing the chop and everything, it's just a great feeling to know you're a part of something so special."
What she can be a part of always interests her more than what anyone else assumes she cannot.
Pickett was born without a left arm. When she put on that Florida State jersey for the first time, she did so a little differently from her teammates. She does a lot of things a little differently from her teammates, and from most other people. But if she defined herself by what she does not have that others do, or by what she cannot do that others can, she would not have been on that road trip in the first place. She certainly would not be a significant contributor on the nation's top-ranked team as a freshman, a midfielder with speed and a cultured left foot who torments opponents with her crosses.
She plays her part in something special not because she finds a way to be like everyone else, but because she's always found a way to be herself.
"After all of this, looking at the world, I see that there are people who have it way worse than me, and a simple disability really shouldn't shape who you are," Pickett said. "You need to be you. Obviously, it's going to [shape who you are] to other people, but you always have to be yourself and you always have to stick with what you love no matter what."
Mike and Treasure Pickett's first indication that the birth of their child would be different from the others in the hospital in Spartanburg, S.C., came when a nurse in the delivery room told Mike she needed to speak to him outside. There was a problem. Their daughter had been born without a left arm below the elbow.
With no roots in South Carolina, having moved there for work, they had no family with them in the hospital to lean on for support. But the hospital arranged for another family to visit that first night, one whose nearly teenage daughter had been born with the same disability as Carson. The strangers reassured the Picketts that it was far from the end of the world, that their own daughter was as healthy, happy and independent as any other girl, right down to tying her own shoes, a minute detail that might seem part of an incomprehensibly distant future for most new parents, but which meant much more to the Picketts.
Baby Carson figured out a way to hold her bottle, figured out a way to crawl on her own -- to the point that, when doctors at the Shriners Hospital tried to equip 6-month-old Carson with a prosthesis, she would crawl just a small distance, stop, pull off the prosthetic appendage and throw it across the floor before continuing on her way.
Unlike most parents, who are able to teach children the hundreds of actions we take for granted -- like buttoning a shirt, putting up long hair or typing on a keyboard -- Mike and Treasure most often had to wait for Carson to figure out her own way to accomplish something. To do otherwise would be the equivalent of trying to teach her a language they didn't speak.
"We learn to do things because of what we have," Treasure said. "She does the same thing because she doesn't know any different."
One day, Treasure opened the door to Carson's room to find her young daughter sitting with her hair perfectly braided. Baffled, she asked her how she had done it, and Carson demonstrated the one-handed technique that to her was no big deal. To this day, Carson prefers to do her own hair rather than leave it to anyone else.
It's one small part of everyday life, but it's the distinction between unable and disabled that is easily blurred by even the most well-meaning observers.
"I would say there are just people out there who would give me more sympathy than I need," Pickett said. "And I've learned that. I've learned that so much throughout my life. My parents never gave me sympathy for having one arm, but I realize other people do kind of give me sympathy that I don't need, just because they feel like I can't do something or that it's hard to do something. When, in reality, I can probably do things just as easily as other people."
That includes sports, which she proved at an early age she could do just as easily as others and better than most. Soccer might seem a natural fit for someone with one arm, but she settled on it only after trying all the other sports her friends played growing up. She played basketball. She played tennis, learning to bounce the ball off her racket and up into the air in place of the toss and how to master the one-handed backhand. She swam competitively.
Her dad recalled only two occasions when he and Treasure shed tears because of Carson's disability. One was the day she was born, the tears products of shock and uncertainty. The other was at a swim meet some years later. Swimming freestyle in the last leg of a relay, Carson entered the pool with her team trailing by more than a full length. She made up the deficit and touched the wall first for the win.
"She jumped out of the pool, she was 6 years old, and we're over there just crying, bawling tears," Mike recalled. "And she's looking at us going, 'Why are you crying? We won.' She didn't understand. It was just tears of pure amazement for me.
"We didn't know if she'd sink to the bottom of the pool when she jumped in."
If soccer was the sport she was destined to pursue, it was as much because of her abilities as her disability. She has a soccer mind, the product of spending hours as a kid hearing about the sport and watching game tapes with her dad, a former college soccer player who coaches at the club and high school levels. And she has physical gifts that still set her apart, even as part of one of the best programs in the college game.
"I knew she had a lot of advantages going into soccer," Mike said. "It's funny to say that because she doesn't have an arm, but to be left-footed and to be fast is a big advantage, in women's soccer especially."
Pickett heard from dozens of interested college programs, but growing up in the Jacksonville area, she had been a regular at Florida State games and soccer camps for years. The program was a place where she felt comfortable, with coaches and players she knew. And yet even in familiar surroundings, college itself was a new environment. Aside from a stretch both she and her parents identified early in her teenage years, she had always been secure in her self-image. It helped that she went to the same school from grade school through high school and had a familiar network of friends.
Suddenly surrounded by people who didn't know her, there was a temptation to blend in and not let that one thing be the first impression others had of her, to try in even the simplest ways to forestall judgment.
"When I first came to Florida State, obviously, like starting over again, I was a little more skeptical about wearing tank tops around; I'd always wear a jacket," Pickett said.
It didn't last. People might look, they might even ask questions, but she is used to explaining. She isn't used to hiding. Asked to describe her teammate, Kirsten Crowley offered the word "bubbly" before anything else. What people see, because they can't miss it, is a happy, bubbly person, the kind of person genuinely excited by a nice hotel on the road. They see someone tremendously talented on a soccer field. And who doesn't have a left arm.
She is all of those things.
"She's really comfortable in her skin, she's real confident in herself," said Crowley, a teammate both in club soccer last year and at Florida State this year. "She knows who she is and what she's trying to do here."
Beyond the soccer field, Pickett would like to make connections in Tallahassee that allow her to do for others what a family of strangers did for her parents on that confusing day nearly two decades ago: reassure them that a disability isn't automatically insurmountable. Not only can a girl with one arm learn to tie her shoes, she can lace up cleats and take the field for the No. 1 team in the nation.
"For anyone who has any type of disability, no matter what it is, if it's physical, mental, there's always hope if you just stick with your dreams," Pickett said. "You're the only one who can stop you from doing what you love."
Pickett still declines to wear a prosthesis on or off the field. She received the most recent version around the time she turned 18. Matched to her skin tone and designed with details right down to simulated veins, it was difficult to distinguish from her real arm. She doesn't have anything against them, doesn't look down on anyone who does take advantage of how far prosthetics have come functionally and cosmetically. They just aren't for her.
She wears instead the tattoo her parents allowed her -- three words inscribed on the inside of her right wrist that reveal more about who she is and how she ended up putting on a Florida State jersey than an arm that isn't there.
Imperfection is beauty.
"Everything she's ever done, she's taken it on and she works at it and figured things out," her dad said. "She's my biggest hero."