Throughout his life, the words “perseverance,” “determination” and “inspirational” would aptly describe Zach Pickett – the 2014 recipient of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). He will receive his award June 29 at the NFHS Summer Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.
Pickett, who is a water polo player at Shingle Springs (California) Ponderosa High School, has swum competitively for many years, including as a talented member of the Ponderosa High School varsity water polo team. Growing up in a “swimming family,” Pickett received an early introduction to aquatic sports.
“My parents got me started in swimming,” Pickett said. “Ever since we were little, we’d swim in the water as a family and we were always OK being in it. I learned how to swim by myself at age three and then I started swimming competitively at age five on a summer league team.”
Pickett’s athletic future appeared very bright, but that changed forever on August 5, 2012, when Pickett and his longtime friends Hayden Cooksy and Frankie Kennedy were on break from their lifeguarding duties at Cameron Park Lake and dove into the water to cool off.
While Cooksy and Kennedy essentially belly-flopped, Pickett instead lowered his head into a diving motion and struck a sandbar submerged in the murky shallow water. That action crushed his seventh vertebra, compressing it into his spinal cord. As a result, Pickett was instantly paralyzed from the chest down.
“When the accident happened, I didn’t really know if I went unconscious. I was just lying there and couldn’t feel anything,” Pickett recalled. “I told Hayden and Frankie that I couldn’t do anything and I couldn’t feel their hands. Then, they got me on the backboard and I went to the UC-Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and had surgery.”
During the next three months, Pickett and his parents spent all of their time among the medical center, the Shriners Hospital and the Sacramento Ronald McDonald House. He then spent several months in the hospital doing rehabilitation work, undergoing countless hours of physical therapy.
“I was trying to get better and wanting to return to school,” Pickett explained. “I was there by myself with the other patients just trying to get back to being normal.”
Confined to a wheelchair, Pickett returned to school during the middle of his junior year. At the time, Pickett started to swim again for rehabilitation purposes, but then decided to compete again.
According to his then-water polo coach Alan Miller, Pickett’s return to competition and his unwavering positive attitude did not surprise him.
“I was at the hospital on the very first day of Zach’s unfortunate accident,” Miller said. “It seemed like he decided early on not to dwell on the negative, and he instead became very focused on what he could do and not what was lost – or at least what was going to be more of a struggle for him.
“I could tell that when people spoke about his new situation in terms of ‘he won’t’ or ‘he can’t,’ Zach wasn’t going to let that enter his mind. I do remember someone making a comment about him not having his legs and his reply was ‘I still have them and they just don’t function as well as they used to.’”
Pickett participated in the U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming Nationals at the University of Minnesota, where he placed first and second in the 50-yard backstroke and 50-yard breaststroke, respectively. During that experience, Pickett met other individuals who had experienced similar injuries.
Exactly eight months and one day after his accident – and after countless hours of rehabilitation and hard work – Pickett became a national champion in the 50 backstroke in the Paralympics S7 division.
One of the key abilities to success in the sport of water polo is not simply treading water, but gaining height above it through a vigorous leg motion called “egg-beating” which enables the athlete to get off a better shot. Although that leg motion was taken away from Pickett during the accident, he now compensates for that with his arms. His upper body strength has been described by teammates as “mind-blowing.”
“When shooting the ball, I am kind of on my side,” Pickett said. “If I have the ball, I can bring my legs to my side and use my left arm to get enough lift to shoot it. That’s mainly how I do it.”
During actual competitions, Pickett will usually arrive at the pool well ahead of the match and lower himself into the pool. The two teams will then play the match, with his physical impairment totally unbeknownst to the opposing team.
It’s not until after the match when the two teams line up to conduct the traditional sportsmanlike post-match handshaking routine that the opponents become aware of Pickett’s condition. They often will give quizzical and befuddled looks, and will even offer apologies for not giving him “a little slack” during the match.
While Pickett sincerely appreciates their compassion, he has never been comfortable in the spotlight, feels that no apologies are necessary, and will often just wheel on by during the handshaking routine.
“Most of them didn’t know that I was in a wheelchair, so they don’t know how to react,” Pickett explained. “However, they are very supportive and will say something like ‘Oh – that’s very cool!’”
Pickett is equally exemplary in the classroom, as he raised his 3.95 grade-point average to a 4.17 last semester. He was recently accepted into the University of Southern California School of Business, where he plans to study business and marketing with an emphasis on sports.
“Not to be cliché - I just kind of want to show people that no matter what you go through, it’s not what happens to you, but how you deal with it. Whatever you have to go through in life, there will always be other people there to help you. You can go a long way with the help of those people.”
John Gillis is NFHS associate director of development.