SHINGLE SPRINGS, Calif. —
It had been only a couple weeks since a diving accident left Zach Pickett
paralyzed from the chest down when he was asked if he still planned to serve as junior class president at Ponderosa (Shingle Springs, Calif.)
Pickett, always quick with the wit and historical knowledge, pondered for a moment and nodded.
"Why not?" he asked rhetorically. "I could be like FDR. He did pretty good for himself in a wheelchair."
Indeed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the country's only four-term president, got a lot done.
But he never played water polo.
Pickett did play the sport — quite well in fact — before the Aug. 5, 2012 mishap at Cameron Park Lake that crushed his seventh vertebra and compressed it into his spinal cord. Somehow, it didn't crush his spirit or his desire to play a sport that is largely powered by legs.
The 17-year-old is believed to be the only paraplegic high school water polo player in the country, and Tuesday he concludes his senior season with a match at Laguna Creek (Elk Grove, Calif.)
"It's been a blast," Pickett said. "I didn't want to play to set some precedent. I just wanted to play because it's what I've always done. I wanted a sense of normalcy. And mostly I just wanted to be around my friends."
His best pal and starting player Hayden Cooksy
describes Pickett's courage as anything but normal. It's just that Pickett makes it seem that way, which couldn't be farther from the truth. The challenge of water polo is not just treading water, but gaining height above it in able to shoot through a vigorous leg pedaling motion called "egg-beating."
It's a vital tool stolen away from Pickett, who shows no outward sign of remorse or anger from his accident. He simply displays a quiet and unassuming fighting spirit.
"We'll be at the pool at practice and Zach just rolls up in his wheelchair," Cooksy said. "He climbs out and sits down and just starts going. Talk about upper body strength? It's mind-blowing."
If the Bruins are blown away, imagine their opponents. Pickett usually lowers himself into the water well before the match, so it's not until afterward, when he leads the team from his wheelchair to shake hands, do they notice. Second and third quizzical looks often follow. Some opponents are flat-out apologetic, Ponderosa coach Matt Jaehn said.
"I've seen kids go, ‘Wait, you're in a wheelchair?'" Jaehn said. "They'll be, ‘Sorry man, I didn't mean to. …'"
Pickett usually just wheels on by. No apologies are necessary. He appreciates the compassion, but he's never been comfortable being in the spotlight. He's much too modest and unselfish, his teammates and family say.
Besides, he's not the star player anymore. He started as a gangly 6-foot-1 sophomore and as one of the fastest swimmers in the area — likely to follow the strokes of his older brother Ryan, a scholarship swimmer at the University of Hawaii — he scored approximately 20 goals that season, mostly on fast breaks.
This season, he has played in more than half the matches, often in lopsided ones, with the result not nearly in jeopardy. The transition from standout to reserve at times was tough for Pickett, but certainly not any more difficult than going from athletic, academic teen to permanently disabled.
The psychological challenge to overcome that sudden and cruel reality has been as tough as the physical one. But Pickett has transitioned smoothly, like a streamlined freestyle crawl through the water, with barely a ripple. He's been steered by a remarkably positive attitude influenced significantly by his parents Judy and Tod Pickett, a relentlessly supportive community and a strong core of aquatic friends.
"I don't know if I'd be able to do what he's done," Cooksy said. "But it's great. Simply great."
Pickett doesn't quite see it that way. He's just living his new life and understandably flashes occasionally back to his former self.
"It's hard because I definitely want to contribute more to the team," he said. "But I do what I can."
Jaehn laughs at such a notion, stating that Pickett's contributions go well past goals, assists or saves.
"We want to be a hard-fighting, scrappy team and Zach is the epitome of that," he said. "He's the heart and soul of this team. And he keeps it fun, too."
That seems highly improbable considering what happened to him 15 months ago. Video shot and edited by Scott Hargrove/Cover photo by Todd Shurtleff