Stuart Weir speaks with the world indoor shot put champion, Michelle Carter, who is hoping to better her father’s Olympic silver in the same event
The women’s shot put in the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships was an epic contest. It was one of the events in which athletes were introduced individually with a fanfare. And on this occasion the event lived up to its billing.
Valerie Adams, the Kiwi who dominated women’s shot put for so long, had still not fully regained her form after surgeries. She had to settle for third after American Michelle Carter took the lead with throws of 18.90m, 19.28m and 19.31m.
The event also followed a new protocol as all 11 competitors had three throws, the top eight receiving two more and finally the top four having a sixth throw.
Carter still led with 19.31m as the final four each had their last throw. Anita Martin of Hungary found a big one and a national record, 19.33m, to snatch the lead from Carter. But Carter, with the last throw of the contest, regained the lead with a world-leading 20.21m.
Carter said of the competition: “I know to focus on what I’ve been working on and let the competition handle itself. I’ve been working hard and it showed up today, so I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’ve been in a lot of situations where that’s happened (needing a big final throw) and a lot of situations where I just didn’t have it that day. Today it was there and it showed up, and I’m glad it did.”
Carter got into shot put in an unusual way. Her father, Michael, won silver in the shot put in the 1984 Olympics, but he was very careful not to put any pressure on Michelle to follow in his footsteps.
In seventh grade (age 12) she changed schools and did not make the basketball team. Then in a sports lesson the teacher suggested that she try the shot. Carter went home and told her dad she had been shot-putting. He said: “Are you sure you want to? Did someone make you do it?” She said that it had been her choice and, as they say, the rest is history. She is quite proud of the unusual, if not unique situation, of being a father and daughter to have competed in the Olympic shot put.
Carter’s breakthrough came when she made the 2001 World Youth Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, winning a silver medal with 15.23m. The winner was a certain Valerie Adams. Carter recalls: “That was my first time going out of the USA and seeing other athletes who do the same thing I do. I really enjoyed it and thought ‘I could see myself doing this for a long time.’” And so it proved. In 2004 she won gold in the World Juniors in Grosseto, Italy, throwing a PB 17.55m. Christina Schwanitz was third.
She made the US team for the 2008 Olympics. She has happy memories but was disappointed with her performance. She threw 17.74m in the final after 18.49m to qualify. “I had just graduated from college and decided to do my best and see what happened and I got 15th. I wasn’t happy with that because I knew I could do better. So I said: ‘Okay, now I know what I need to do and how I am going to do it.’And the next year I worked hard to do it.”
She won bronze in the Pan Am Games in 2011 and then another bronze at the World Indoors (2012).
Ironically, Carter is ambivalent about indoor competition. After winning the 2012 indoor medal, she said: “That was good because I usually throw horrible indoors. But as the years go by I get used to my body and the training cycle and I get better and better indoor.”
Part of her problem with indoors is the timing. “I don’t start training until November or December so for the indoor season, I’m just not ready,” she said.
London was her second Olympics and she finished fifth. “I’m not mad at that,” she said. “I was happy how I performed. It was the best I had done in international competition. I was happy about that.” She also loved the Olympic experience.
“I had a great time in London,” she said. “I didn’t try to restrict myself too much from doing stuff while I was there. I wanted to have the whole Olympic experience. In Beijing I hadn’t done a whole lot of things I wanted to because I thought you had to stay down and not do anything until after you compete. This time I did all the things I missed out on and things I hadn’t seen. So in London I did opening ceremony, closing ceremony, movie premieres – I did all that.
“After you make the team in the US and you have all the stuff going on – all the interviews and you want to see your family before you leave, before you even get to London. I realised afterwards that I had been competing in London tired because there’s so much going on. You need to give yourself a moment to breathe and calm down because it is like a whirlwind going on.”
In 2013 she broke the US record with 20.24 at Des Moines. It did not surprise her: “I knew it was coming but I didn’t know when or where because I knew I was capable of going over 20 metres. I just had to wait and let my technique work for me. I have been working really hard this year  on technique.
“The event is so technical that timing, everything matters so much. I’m just glad something worked for me.”
It is no coincidence that Carter attributed the record to technique. As she explained, her training and approach to the shot is very technique-based. “I’ve always been taught to have good technique,” she says. “In high school I couldn’t do a push-up. I was very weak compared to people I was going against who could bench press I don’t know how many pounds but I didn’t really lift weights in high school.
“And I wasn’t consistent with that in college so I’ve always been weak. As a professional I have been trying to get stronger, but the weights room has always been my weakness. I’ve always struggled but lately it’s been a lot better. Typically I wake up at seven and get ready for practice at nine. I throw, then I try to grab lunch real quick, do weights and my plyometrics and things like that and probably get done by 3pm in the afternoon.”
Since 2012, Carter has finished in the top five at all six major global championships indoor and out. At the 2015 World Championships she picked up bronze. With throws of 19.45m, 19.76m, 18.57m, 18.85m, 19.48m and 19.71m, she was solid and consistent rather than spectacular but would have needed a new PB to beat either gold medallist Christina Schwanitz of Germany (20.37m) or Lijiao Gong of China (20.30m). It was her first major outdoor medal.
If you have been impressed with Carter’s appearance in competition, it is no coincidence. Her Twitter handle is @ShotDiva, bringing together two important aspects of her life. She recently said: “I want to make sure I’m looking my best because it gives me a boost of energy. If I look my best, I perform to my best.”
She has completed a course as a make-up artist and the meticulous process of hair and make-up can take up to two hours before a competition. But then with Carter, nothing is left to chance.