You Throw, Girl: An Olympic Shot-Putter’s Feminist Mission
Shot put has been part of the modern Olympics since the beginning, in 1896, but women did not compete in it until the 1948 Games, in London. And that wasn’t the last barrier for the sport, either. Michelle Carter, the Americans’ best hope for a shot-put medal this year, believes that there’s a stigma in the United States for women who compete in events, like the shot put, that require enormous amounts of brute strength and the bodies that go with it. No American woman has medalled in shot put since Earlene Brown at the Rome Olympics, in 1960.
“It has been a long time,” Carter told me at the Olympic trials in Oregon earlier this year. “And it’s something I think a lot of girls and women shy away from because it’s not looked at as something a woman would want to do or a woman should do.” She believes that things are improving, though. “I think now, it’s like, ‘You know what? We’re girls and we can throw heavy balls and be in the dirt and we look good while we’re doing it.’ I think it’s bringing more attention to the sport and girls are realizing, Hey, I can do this and it’s O.K. to do this as a girl.”
Carter, who is a certified professional makeup artist, is a stylish presence on the field. “For a couple of years, being professional, I kind of questioned myself,” she said. “Should I wear my false lashes or take the time I want to take so I can feel good when I go out on the field? Because nobody else was really doing that. And I thought, No: I’m not going to change what I believe I should look like to fit anybody else’s standards. I believe if you look your best, you’re going to feel your best, you’re going to do your best.”
At the Olympic trials, with her reddish-pink hair tied up in a ponytail, she licked her palm, cradled the shot between her neck and shoulder, and spun her body in a dizzying circle, releasing the four-kilogram ball into the air with the force of a cannon. The ball flew 19.59 metres away, setting a new meet record and securing Carter, the current American record-holder, a spot on her third Olympic team.
“You have to understand everyone’s body was built to do something,” Carter said. “I was built to do something, and that’s how I was built. I think the world is realizing we were promoting one body type and there have always been many.”
Carter has made body image a central concern of her life off the field, including promoting a line of makeup, called Shot Diva, and operating a sports-confidence camp called You Throw Girl. She has posed in ESPN’s Body Issue and regularly posts photos of herself on Instagram in swimsuits, an effort to refute the stereotype that all who compete in the shot put are simply “tough-looking women.”
Carter said she is often asked by parents and coaches to talk to younger female throwers. “The parents say, ‘Can you talk to my daughter and say that it’s O.K.? That she can have muscles?’ They’ll say, ‘I show her pictures of you so they can know she’s good at what she does but still looks like a girl. She wears dresses.’ It releases people to be whoever they want to be in the sport.”
Carter’s father, Michael, was also a world-class shot-putter; like his daughter, he set a national high-school record in the event that still stands. He won a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and then was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, ultimately going to three Pro Bowls and three Super Bowls during his N.F.L. career. (He is the only athlete to win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring in the same year.) Carter remembers that, when she began competing on her middle-school track team, in seventh grade, he asked her, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Back then, she added, “I was not aware of what my dad had accomplished. I grew up with him playing football.” He’s now his daughter’s coach.
She will get another shot at that this weekend. The competition at the trials turned out to be the greatest in the history of U.S. track and field: eight women surpassed eighteen metres. Carter took the top spot handily, but at the Olympics she’ll face even steeper competition. She believes that she’s better prepared than ever. “For me, it’s maturity,” she said. “You have to grow up and you learn things along the way. But for me it was definitely a process. My body had to mature and my mind had to mature. I had to put these pieces together. I’ve always been so close.”