One of my clearest memories from high school - and my early days of being a shot putter - happened in the lobby of a movie theater. A boy from another school was chatting me up, being flirty, and asked me my name - and when I told him, his jaw dropped and he took a step back. He recognized it from the newspaper. By that point, I was a fixture in the local sports section; my skill at throwing had earned me plenty of ink, with talk of scholarships and a spot on an international team. But my minor fame wasn't what surprised thatboy. It was what I looked like.
"I thought you'd look like a man," he stuttered. I had to laugh. I'm girly and curvy, but so many people expect an athlete to look tough and masculine. Or maybe this fellow teenager expected me to look more like my father, Michael Carter, who had won a silver medal for shot put in the 1984 Olympics and went on to win three Super Bowls as a nose tackle for the San Francisco 49ers (he also happens to be my coach). Hardly: I'm obsessed with false eyelashes, and even today, as an Olympic athlete, I always get my nails done a couple of days before a meet, and decide on a hairstyle, too. The night before, I'll lay out the makeup I want to put on: a brow filler, a lipstick-there's a NYX red one that looks great with those Team USA uniforms-and my lashes. I have to have my lashes. For me, it all sets the tone: I'm getting ready to go to work.
I've definitely taken a little flack for my pre-competition routine. People might not say it to my face, but I know it's been said-that I'm focusing on something superficial, putting on a show. But this is not a facade; it's me. I've been into beauty since I was a little girl. Putting on makeup has always been a part of me, and so has my size.
I've been a bigger girl all my life. So if you're not one of the folks who expects all athletes to look like linebackers, you might be someone who assumes that all athletes come equipped with a six-pack and visible muscles everywhere. Sure, that works. But my body works too. I won bronze in the shot put at the World Championships, and I've been ranked the best in the country, third in the world (for now - just wait until the summer Games!), and I'm proud of my strength. If I were built like Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who is 4-foot-11 and 90 pounds, I could never throw a shot put the way I do, and if she had my body, she sure wouldn't be flipping in the air. Yet we're both built like athletes. As a teenager, I was always confident about my body, and I think sports was a big part of that: Why would I tear down what had given me so much? I take care of myself - I can run a mile - but I was just meant to be bigger, because God created me to throw a shot put.
That's why it came as a shocking blow when, as an adult, I developed hang-ups about my body. After the 2012 Olympics, I returned to training, but unlike in previous years, my off-season weight gain didn't melt off as soon as I got back to my routine. I was tired and my clothes weren't fitting. I'd been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which means my thyroid is underactive, and that slows my metabolism. I'd experienced some symptoms before, but they got much worse, and I ultimately put on 90 pounds. It was crazy for me. After a lifetime of feeling at home in my plus-size body, I was a 27-year-old having self-esteem issues. Clothes shopping stopped being fun and became a chore, I couldn't wear the curve-showing styles I loved without Spanx-and I worried that my new body would affect my training. But I continued to push myself in practice, focusing on my technique, and I also pushed myself to learn more about my condition. Ultimately, some medication adjustments helped me get back on track. At a summer 2013 competition in Des Moines, IA, I threw 20.24 meters-a new American record, which was a longtime personal goal. I remember thinking, Finally! I'd broken through. I could still do this. And I could do it better than ever.
It took some more time for me to really embrace my different shape and to not feel defined by it or my illness, but today, I feel confident in my new and ever-changing body. The fact is that because of my thyroid, I could be bigger or smaller than this a year from now. Either way, I'll still be the same person inside.
Both my rocky experiences with weight gain and my positive experiences with sports have helped me with another goal. Traveling for competitions and speaking at schools, I've met young women who have issues with confidence and how they look, especially if they're bigger. That insecurity isn't only coming from inside. Their classmates - even some adults in their lives - ridicule them and make them feel bad for how they look. They need another voice to tell them, "Hey, what matters is how you feel about yourself. If you think you're cute, then you're cute. If you think you're the best, then you can go out there and work hard and be the best." I want to be that voice. Just knowing that they have somebody on their side to help encourage them, not just in a sport but in their lives as young women, makes girls feel more powerful. I've run a few mini series of what I call the You Throw Girl Confidence Camp, where girls can get these much-needed pep talks and try some new things that they could become great at, like shot put, thanks to their wonderful bodies. I really want to do a full-blown summer camp eventually - but right now I'm focusing on the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
At my first Olympics, in Beijing in 2008, the stadium was so big that the people in the top rows looked fake. I was nervous. Then I threw and heard that big stadium come alive. Now I revel in the Olympic hype, and I can't wait to get to my third Games this summer. It's like a thrilling reunion for the best athletes from around the world. I love that I'm one of those athletes. I'm also a girly-girl, who is plus-size, who is a leader - and who is happy.
To learn more about Michelle, visit teamusa.org. The Olympics begin August 5.
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