When Michelle Carter stepped up for her final throw in the Olympic shot put competition in Rio de Janeiro, she was trailing New Zealand’s Valerie Adams by 0.55 meters. Adams won gold in both London and Beijing, and seemed poised to become the first woman to win first place in the Olympic shot put three consecutive times.
But Carter still “had more in the tank,” she told Olympics reporters; her energy and focus remained strong. For her sixth and final throw, Carter spun ferociously and launched the shot 20.63 meters — shattering the American record by more than a foot and beating Adams by 0.21 meters. It was enough to earn her the Olympic gold, making her the first American woman to win the world’s premier shot put competition.
Carter’s historic win is made more impressive and noteworthy because she’s more than an inspiring athlete; she is a role model to tens of thousands of children with learning challenges. Carter was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia early in elementary school and today she’s a dedicated advocate for children like her. “I was definitely a handful back then,” she recalls in an interview with Understood.org. “I could not sit down long enough to study and to learn.”
Though tests revealed a high IQ, Carter says she struggled to focus and read at the same pace as her peers. Despite her challenges, she says, her mother maintained immense faith in her, and was determined to get her daughter the academic help she needed. For most of elementary school and middle school, Carter went to tutoring three or four times a week, and worked with teachers who eventually came to understand how she learned. Her hard work paid off, she says — by the time high school rolled around, she was earning good grades.
And as school became easier to manage, Carter found another source of joy in track and field. She began to dominate shot put competitions early on, and made the U.S. National Team at the age of 15. She received a full scholarship to the University of Texas for her track accomplishments, and it was there that she began to see the shot put as a long-term career path.
“Once I realized I could do a sport I loved and have a career that would let me see the world, I was in,” she told Understood.org.
Carter briefly tried medication to help her manage the symptoms of ADHD shortly before she started at UT at the insistence of her doctor and school officials who worried she wouldn’t be able to survive without it, she has said. But she says it made her overly focused on mundane tasks — once scrubbing the bathroom for 6 hours with a toothbrush until it was spotless — and she stopped taking it. Despite the challenges of juggling a full school schedule with her track and field career, she graduated college with a degree in Youth and Community Studies and a minor in kinesiology.
Her father, Michael Carter, is a U.S. sports icon in his own right. He won a silver medal in shot put at the 1984 Olympics — the same year he helped the San Francisco 49ers clinch the Super Bowl as a nose tackle. To this day, he remains the only person to win an Olympic medal and the Super Bowl in the same year.
The Carters are the first father-daughter team to medal in the Olympics in the same sport. Michelle says that after she returns home with her gold medal, she’ll enjoy teasing her father about one-upping him. "Of course, I can't wait until I get the medal and I can walk around the house and say 'Daddy, I got you,'" Carter told reporters after the event, according to NPR. The elder Carter, who coached his daughter to her gold-medal performance, said he was “numb” after she clinched her victory — and he certainly has a lot to be proud of. Not only does Michelle still hold the U.S. high school record in women’s shot put (set in 2003), he has one, too: No one has broken the men’s high school record he set in 1979.
Carter says her dad never pushed her into the shot put, instead encouraging her to find her own path. And she has — in addition to being an Olympic champion, she’s also a certified makeup artist (known professionally as the “ShotDiva”) and has founded her own makeup company. In 2010, she founded the organization You Throw Girl, a confidence-building sports camp for female athletes, particularly those who struggle with body image.
“What I would tell a kid who struggles with anything in life is this: When you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” writes Carter on her blog. “It may not be easy, but you can do it. It may take a long time, but you can do it. Learning disabilities do not go away — you learn how to adapt… Find out how you learn, work with it and work it out!”