The West Babylon High School Robotics Club was looking for new members in 2008 who were interested in design and computer programming to build a robot during the school year, and someone was needed to pilot it in the year-ending competition against other schools.
Gerard DeSimone, the club adviser, turned to Vincent Ficarrotta, a freshman he'd seen navigating the school hallways in a joystick-controlled motorized wheelchair. "You're a natural at it," DeSimone said. "I want you to drive."
So began months of lunch-period practice sessions. Four years later, Ficarrotta, 17, of West Babylon, is still with the team.
"Robotics brought me into the tech field and put a focus on my interest," he said. "I fell in love with it."
High school hasn't always been easy for Ficarrotta, who was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition that results in stiff joints and abnormally developed muscles.
"Everybody knows me as the kid in the chair," he said. "I try to be as open as possible about it; I'll joke about it with my friends."
After years of exercising after school with a hand-cycle and lifting weights, Ficarrotta said, doctors have told him he may have reached his body's limits.
It's still hard to write fast enough to take notes in class. It's impossible to shoot baskets by hand, a task he performed with the help of a robot at this year's club competition when he led West Babylon to a 21st-place finish out of a field of 50 Long Island teams.
DeSimone is eager to see what the next four years will bring for the student he calls the "quarterback" of the robotics club. "I don't think I ever heard him say, 'I can't do this.' "
HIS PLANS: To attend Farmingdale State College and major in computer systems.
AT COLLEGE I'M MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO:Having to do everything on my own.
HIGH SCHOOL HIGH POINT:Finding out I was going to graduate and getting into a great school.