EUGENE, Ore. – Michelle Carter is well aware that U.S. women have won the same number of Olympic medals in the shot put as the Carter family.
She aims to double that in Rio. On both fronts.
Carter, who relied on a tremendous final throw to win the women’s shot put Thursday at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field, is the daughter of Michael Carter, the silver medalist in the men’s shot put at the Los Angeles 1984 Games. He went on to win three Super Bowl rings as a nose tackle with the San Francisco 49ers.
Earlene Brown is the only U.S. woman to win a medal in the shot put, taking home the bronze in 1960.
“It would be great to bring the U.S. women back into the medal count for the Olympics in women’s shot put because it has been a long time,” said Carter, the reigning world indoor champion and American-record holder who made her third straight Olympic team. “I think it’s something that a lot of girls and women shy away from because it’s not looked at as something that a woman would want to do or what a woman should do.
“And I think that now, we’re making it look like, ‘You know what, we’re girls and yes, we like to throw heavy balls in dirt and we look good while we’re doing it.’ So it’s definitely bringing more attention back to the sport and the girls are realizing, ‘Hey, I can do this and it’s OK to do this as a girl.’”
Carter, 30, also won her world indoor title in March in Portland, Oregon, on her final heave, becoming the first U.S. woman to win a global title. Two-time defending Olympic champion Valerie Adams of New Zealand suffered her first major loss since 2010.
With red hair extensions piled high on her head Thursday, Carter was in the lead through the first three throws, but fouled on her fourth and fifth attempts in a light rain. First, Felisha Johnson moved ahead of her, and then Raven Saunders took the top spot.
Although Carter was already assured of making Team USA, she was in it to win it. Her throw of 64 feet, 3 ¼ inches knocked Saunders, the Ole Miss sophomore who won her second NCAA title last month at Hayward Field, into second place at 63-1 ½. Johnson was third at 63-1 ¼.
Saunders and Johnson qualified for their first Olympic teams.
Tia Brooks, who came in as the leading U.S. thrower, was fourth (62-1 ¾), far shy of her usual marks this season. She is still ahead of Carter on the world list, although Carter moved into fourth place with her final throw.
The women’s shot put was the greatest in U.S. track and field history with eight women over 18 meters and seven women over 60 feet.
“I just had to gather my thoughts and gather my energy and just really focus and try not to foul,” said Carter. “You have to just give it your all and calm down and do what you’ve been practicing.”
Her father, who is also her coach, was on pins and needles in the stands.
“He told me not to make him nervous like that anymore,” Michelle said. “But anything can happen in these competitions. Team USA is the hardest team to make, so you can’t take these meets lightly. You can never count yourself on the team because you never know. Each spot is earned – and I earned my spot tonight.”
She took comfort knowing that she could “dig deep” when it counted. “That’s something I struggled with for years,” Carter said. “But to be able to have done that in my last two major meets, that shows the maturity of what I’ve been able to do and learn as long as I’ve been throwing.”
Carter was only 10 years old and not yet a shot putter when she attended her first Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. She was on a family trip to see her godfather, Robert Weir, a discus thrower for Great Britain and her father’s best friend.
“I’m like, ‘Oh wow, this is so cool,’” she said. “And then years later I talk about this with my younger sister and I was telling her about the track meet and the Coca-Cola house and all the things we did that related to the meet and she was like, ‘I don’t remember anything but going to the mall.’” I was like, ‘How can you not remember the track meet?’”
Carter met some of the U.S. female shot putters, including Connie Price-Smith, who will be the head coach of the U.S. women’s team in Rio. Price-Smith placed fifth in Atlanta, missing the bronze medal by 13 cm, not quite four inches.
Carter picked up the shot in the seventh grade at the suggestion of the coaches on her junior high team.
“My dad told me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?'’’ Carter said, “because at that time, I was not aware of what my dad had accomplished. I grew up with him playing football, so that’s all I knew. So he asked me a few questions and he was like, ‘OK, well, then since this is what you want to do I’m going to teach you, I’m going to make sure you do it right.’ And the rest is history.”
By 2004, Carter was accomplished enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials. However, she chose to go to the World Junior Championships instead, winning with a throw of 57-7.
“My daddy said, ‘Look how far you threw there. You could have made the finals in the Olympic Games,’ and that right there was kind of like, ‘Okaaaay.’” Carter said. “Maybe I kind of low-balled myself, but at that time I was thinking I didn’t want to fail at my first Olympic chance. So I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to wait,’ so that’s what I ended up doing.’”
She won the Olympic Trials in 2008, then placed 15th in Beijing.
“I was just scared,” Carter said. “I was so nervous. And I put a lot of pressure on myself. So when I actually walked into the stadium, I will never forget this, I’m looking all around and the people at the top looked so small. I’m like, ‘Are they even real?’ Like they put cardboard up there to make it look like people.
“It was a little overwhelming for me, but it was a great experience.’”
When she arrived in London, she realized she was over what she called “the ‘Wow’ factor.”
“I’m not surprised by big stadiums any more,” Carter said. “We’ve been there, done that, world championships, we’re good.”
She marched in the Opening Ceremony and enjoyed London.
“And then I believe I came out and did my best,” Carter said.
Because of a positive drug test determined after the Games, she advanced from sixth place to fifth place, and may even move up another spot based on the investigation into more tests.
“It was always a joke to say, ‘If I just wait long enough, I’ll get a medal in 2012,’” Carter said. “I’m patient. I will wait. Which is unfortunate for the sport, but it happens.
“So here we are in 2016 and it’s like, ‘Michelle, you’ve been here, done that. You have one experience where you were really nervous, the other experience where you just wanted to enjoy and take in the Olympic moment.’”
And now? Now she’s ready to medal at the Games in Rio, building on the bronze she won at the 2015 world championships in Beijing that were also held in the Olympic venue of the Bird’s Nest, which no longer felt as imposing.
“It’s like, ‘Michelle, you’ve got to go to work,’” Carter said. “Because I actually have a chance to really win the Olympics and it’s important to me, not just for me and my family, but to support my country and show others, ‘Hey you can be great at this if you work hard and stay with it. You can do whatever you want to do.’ My goal for 2016 is to walk out with the gold medal.”
In the pursuit of Olympic glory, she has had to put her life her life on hold.
“My life is about training and recovering,” Carter said.
She doesn’t meet friends for dinner as often, because they usually stay out four or five hours and she either can’t spare the time or is too tired.
“And that’s OK because all of my friends understand,” Carter said. “They know that I have a goal ahead of me and they want it just as much as I do. Or if I order something they feel like I’m not supposed to eat, they’re like, ‘Michelle, where’s your salad? Or where’s your vegetables?’ They hold me accountable as well.”
But she’s proud to be a role model for people of all shapes and sizes. Carter, who appeared in the 2009 ESPN “Body Issue,” said the plus-size market is growing and is becoming more accepted.
“I tell people all the time if I was built like (gymnast) Gabby Douglas, I could not throw the shot put the way I throw the shot put,” Carter said. “And if Gabby Douglas was built like me, she could not flip in the air the way that she flips in the air. And so you have to understand, everybody’s body is built to do something different.”
She projects an aura of confidence in her appearance and her talent when she steps into the ring. For a couple of years as a professional, Carter questioned if she should wear her long eyelashes while competing because no one else was doing it.
“But then I was thinking, ‘No, I’m not going to change what I believe I should look like based on anybody else’s standards,” she said. “Because I believe if you go out there and you look your best, you’re going to feel your best and you’re going to do your best.
“And it makes for great pictures at the end.”
American-record holder Keturah Orji of the University of Georgia won the women’s triple jump, leaping 46-11 ¾ on her first and fifth jumps.
Christina Epps moved from fifth place into second on her fifth attempt, surpassing the Olympic qualifying standard with her jump of 46-6 to make her first Olympic team while Andrea Geubelle was third at 45-9 ¼ to also make Team USA for the first time. Geubelle was third at the 2012 Olympic Trials but did not have the qualifying standard.
The last time the U.S. sent three women’s triple jumpers to the Olympics was in 1996.
Emma Coburn won her second straight Olympic Trials in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 9 minutes, 17.48 seconds. Coburn, the American-record holder, finished well ahead of Courtney Frerichs (9:20.92) and Colleen Quigley (9:21.29), who will both be first-time Olympians. Shalaya Kipp finished fourth (9:28.72) to miss her second Olympic team.