Michelle Carter won Olympic gold in Rio in 2016, becoming the first American woman to ever do so in her chosen sport of shot put. The Red Oak High School grad also has six National Championships under her belt, in addition to a Collegiate NCAA National Championship from her time at the University of Texas. Her dad, and coach, happens to be Dallas-born Michael Carter, a member of SMU’s 1983 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship team and the only athlete to win an Olympic medal (silver) and Super Bowl ring (with the San Francisco 49ers) in the same year. It’s clear, Carter’s got cred and has reached the pinnacle of her sport. But she’s not done throwing yet.
A few weeks ago in Houston, I was at the City and Regional Magazine Association conference and Gary Belsky, the former editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, was talking about conceptualizing the first Body issue. He said that a lot of people were really skeptical about what it was going to be like. But when the magazine came out, he knew they got it right after he received a letter from a mother in North Carolina. She said she had been ready to be really angry because her 12-year-old athletic daughter was an avid reader, and she didn’t want it to turn out like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. Then, when she got the magazine and saw your photo in it, she was ecstatic.
When I got the phone call to be in that issue and they explained it to me, I thought that was awesome because when people think of someone athletic and fit, they only think of one way. You have to be super lean with a lot of muscles and a six-pack. When you really start breaking down the different sports and the different positions within sports, everybody’s body is going to be different. There is no one model for an athlete. Even if you take a football team, the linemen look different from the running back, and the running back looks different from the quarterback. They all look different. I am a plus-size athlete, and you don’t think of the two things together. You can’t be plus-sized and an athlete. But I can sprint faster than most sprinters in a good 30 to 20 meters. I can lift a lot of weight, probably more than most men. I am in shape for what I do, and I am the best at what I do.
Throughout your career, you’ve made a point of talking to young girls about body issues. When did your body first become an issue for you?
I’ve pretty much been 5-foot-9 since fourth grade. I was wearing a B cup bra in third grade. I wear a size 12 in women’s shoes. For me, I’m always the bigger girl. My parents definitely built me up to believe that I was perfect the way that I was made, and I was made like this for a reason. As I got older and I went to college, people started making other comments. Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I thought I looked fine. I don’t think I’m just cute for a big girl or cute for a dark-skinned girl.” If I’m cute, I’m cute; if I’m not, I’m not.
When I talk to young girls, it is very sad that they feel that they really have to alter their appearance to feel beautiful or feel accepted. I want young girls to know everybody is not going to be built the same. I can’t throw the shot put and look like Gabby Douglas; it doesn’t work that way. Gabby Douglas can’t be the gymnast she is, built like me. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to flip through the air as high as she can. You have to learn how to love your body for what it is and what it can do for you.
You recently held the first You Throw Girl Sports Confidence Camp at Red Oak Middle School. How did it go?
It went great. We had 55 girls participate. I had my college coach come and talk to them about what it takes to do athletics in college. I had two girls who are currently in college now talk about what they would have done differently in high school to prepare for college. Then I had some Olympian friends help out: Gia Lewis Smallwood, American record-holder in women’s discus; Tia Brooks [shot put]; Shelby Baron [tennis Paralympian]; and Mechelle Lewis [track and field].
What do you think girls need to succeed in sports today?
I think the most important thing is to have coaches that are knowledgeable and have a passion to coach girls. I think some people still have an issue coaching girls because they think that girls really don’t want to work hard or they just don’t know how to communicate with young girls. Or you have coaches who want to work with girls, but they don’t have the knowledge that they need to coach girls properly. I think education amongst coaches is still something that needs to be improved. When these coaches have the knowledge and confidence to coach young athletes to the best of their abilities, and those kids get the proper training, they’re not getting hurt at young ages.
Right now, we’re seeing the kind of major injuries in kids who are 12, 13, 14 years old that you see college or even professional athletes have. That is frightening because you can really harm your body for the rest of your life if you hurt it that young with major injuries. Just making sure that these coaches are properly trained and at least can have continued education along their career so they can keep learning and stay on top of what’s new and what’s proper for these kids as they grow up to be great athletes.
When did you first get involved in sports?
My first sport was soccer, when I was in fourth grade. I think I played one year. I got hit in the face one too many times with the soccer ball because I was the goalie. I was like, “You know what? I’m good. I don’t need this sport anymore. I’m going to play basketball.”
I was already 5-foot-9 in seventh grade. At that time, I was at a private school and they didn’t have a girls’ basketball team. I was on the boys’ team for a while. Then my daddy decided to be the coach of the girls’ team because, I just found out two months ago, no one wanted to coach us. He never played basketball in school; he just played with his friends. But he told me that he would be out watching NCAA games and the NBA, trying to figure out how to teach girls how to play basketball.
I didn’t start track and field until I was in seventh grade. One of the coaches said, “Hey, Michelle. You should definitely try out for the track team.” I was like, “OK. I’ll go home and ask my dad.” He questioned me up and down. “Who asked you? How did they say it? What all did they tell you?” I had no idea what was going on. I grew up with my dad playing football; I had no idea what he did in track and field.
You had no idea he was an Olympic silver medalist in shot put?
Yeah. That was all before I was born. He didn’t really talk about it. He didn’t want anybody to push us into that sport, not even himself, because he knew the expectations that would be put on us. He wanted us to choose it organically, because we decided to, not because someone told us to.
What was it like having your dad for a coach?
It was definitely hard in the beginning. Even through college, and then after I went professional, because my dad can see my potential and he knows how well I can do. When he didn’t feel I was giving it my all or I wasn’t focused, it was very frustrating for him. When he was frustrated, he made me frustrated, and then we were both frustrated and mad at each other. When my dad started seeing me working hard at it, then it put him in a place of ease where he don’t have to fuss at me at all times.
When I go practice, I have my markers from the practice the day before. Each day, I’m trying to beat my marks that I had from the day before because I want to be better than I was yesterday. Just learning how to push myself and motivate myself, that comes from within. I think that is what I really enjoy about the sport. It always shows me another way or somehow it pushes me to another level, whether I felt I was ready for it or not.
When did you realize you could go all the way in the sport?
It was my freshman year of college at UT. I made the World Junior team and we were in Roseto, Italy. I remember I didn’t have the best season that year because it was my first year in college, and there were a lot of adjustments. When I went to that meet, I was battling between first and second place with a girl from Russia. She was making all this noise, screaming and hollering. At one point, she bumped me. We were passing by each other and her shoulder hit my shoulder, and I was like, Oh, no. On my last throw—I still look at the video, years later—on my last throw, I just remember giving it my all. I had a personal best by 3 feet that day. Right then, it proved to me that I have what it takes.
What was it like to win gold in 2016?
Winning the gold medal was a big relief. I just felt like this huge weight was lifted off of me. When I started counting the years, I had been doing the shot put for 20 years. This was my third Olympics, so it took 20 years and three Olympics for me to get it. I’m just happy that I stuck with it, and that I didn’t give up on myself and didn’t listen to what other people thought I should do.
What did people want you to do instead?
People would make comments like, “Don’t you think it is time to get a real job?” “What is your next career going to be? You need to start thinking about life after track. Track doesn’t last forever.” “You’re getting kind of old. You want to start thinking about having kids and getting married.” All that stuff is going to come when it is supposed to come, but right now I have a job to do.
People don’t quite understand that this is my full-time job and this is my career. This job has taken me all over the world. I’ve been places that people probably will never go in their lifetime. I love that about what I do, and that I get to be exposed to a lot of things that most people won’t. I don’t have to work another job to pay my bills. I’m just fine throwing this ball at some dirt around the world and getting paid for it.
Are you training for the next Olympics?
I am. We have World Championships this year in London in August. I am definitely getting ready for that. Then my eyes are set on 2020.