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Michelle Carter is an athlete and businessperson. She was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a young child. 

With her parents’ support, she discovered her talents in track and field, going on to compete in three Olympic Games: in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Michelle won gold in 2016. Now she runs You Throw Girl, a camp that helps girls build confidence. 

Michelle believes that for kids who are struggling with a learning or thinking difference, sports can be a big help. “It gives them a moment to just get that energy out, let their brains be free while they’re making their bodies work,” she says. 

In this episode of In It, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk with Michelle about the challenges she faced in and out of school. They also learn about her experiences as a world-class athlete and entrepreneur. 

Michelle shares tips for kids to build their confidence. She also offers advice to help parents and families of kids with learning and thinking differences. 

Related resources

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs... 

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. 

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family that's definitely in it. Today we are freaking out a little bit. Or at least I am, because we are speaking with an Olympic athlete. 

Gretchen: And learning about how having learning and thinking differences may have helped carry her over the finish line. 

Rachel: In 2016, Michelle Carter took a gold medal for shot put, the first American woman to win gold in that sport.

Gretchen: And if that's not enough, Michelle is also a makeup artist, motivational speaker, and an advocate for kids with learning differences. 

Rachel: And, even before she won gold in 2010, she founded a sports camp called You Throw Girl, aimed at building up the confidence of female athletes. 

Gretchen: We are so excited to get into all of it with her. 

Rachel: Yes we are. 

Gretchen: OK so, welcome to "In it," Michelle. 

Michelle: Well, thank you for having me. I'm excited. 

Gretchen: We know you are an Olympic gold medalist. This is amazing. But you're also a makeup artist and advocate for girl athletes and kids with learning and thinking differences. So, let's start back at the beginning. What were you like as a little kid?

Michelle: Oh my gosh, my mom would be the best to tell you about it. She said I was a busybody. You couldn't blink your eyes and think I might still be in the same place type-of-kid. You blink and I'm gone. There's been times where she took me to, like, daycare, and they'd call my mom. They'll say, "Miss Carter, we lost Michelle. But we know she didn't leave the door..." 

Gretchen: Oh no!

Rachel: So that was kind of a preschool story. But what was school like for you? I heard you say in one interview that you were a "handful" in the classroom. 

Michelle: Well, yeah. So, I remember in third grade, the teacher said that I just wouldn't sit still. And so, in third grade, she put me by her desk and she'll let me just sit however the way I wanted to sit. She said, because I'm doing my work is just that I'm not sitting still. 

And so, she just created my own little space for me. But as I got older, I was able to kind of control it because my mom, when we'd go home, we would practice like, "You have to sit still for like 30 minutes and we'll time it. And when you get done, you can do whatever you want." So, over time, just sitting still became easier because I understood, "OK, I have this time that I have to do it like this, but then I can have this time where I can do what I want to do." 

Gretchen: So besides, like, trouble sitting still, was there anything else in school that you had a hard time with? 

Michelle: So, I'm a little stubborn, and I like to do things that I like to do. And so, there's been times in the classroom where I didn't quite do things the way the teacher may have wanted me to do, and they took it as me, kind of, rebelling. And then this one time, I wasn't rebelling. 

The teacher thought I was trying to be smart with her in math class, so we had to have a parent-teacher conference about that, and that turned into a whole nother situation when my parents did tell her that I do think differently and that I do have ADHD. And then she came at me, y'all, with the story. You remember Little House on the Prairie? 

Gretchen: Oh, yes.

Michelle: And so, the "slave black boy" that had to go to school and was learning how to read, and people was making fun of him, and he felt alone and isolated because he didn't understand. She told me that that must be how I feel in her class. 

Gretchen: Oh, no. 

Michelle: Yeah. And I just sat back and I, you know, I had to, like, just let her have that moment. Whatever you want to think about me is fine. I'm gonna do my work and get out your class. 

Rachel: And you're a little kid, right? 

Michelle: Well, this time I'm high school. I'm in high school.

Gretchen: OK. 

Michelle: I'm a sophomore. Which is still inappropriate. It's like. 

Gretchen: Oh, yeah!

Michelle: That is inappropriate. I was at a predominantly white school, and so that was her first thought. Just to hear that about me, that's what you think about me? 

Gretchen: Yeah. 

Rachel: So, when did you find out that you had ADHD and dyslexia? And did you find out at the same time?

Michelle: So, I was tested young. I want to say maybe 4 or 5 years old, I was tested. So it was always kind of known with that being known, if that makes sense. Like, it was more like "Hey, you think differently." You know, "You got to work a little harder on this because your mind just does something different." You know, "Sometimes you can't focus as long. So this is the game plan on how to focus." 

That's how we approached it versus, you know, "You have ADHD and with ADHD you can't do this." And you know, "You don't do this well." It wasn't presented to me negatively. And so, it was like, "Hey, you know, you do things a little differently. That's OK. This is how you're going to do it." 

Because I remember in elementary school — I almost forgot about this — I used to go to a tutor from third through sixth grade for one hour, Monday through Thursday. And she helped me with my writing and my math, because I also with my ADHD, I had dyslexia. And even my tutor, she was a little old lady, Miss Darden. She's still alive today, and I talk to her every now and then I check in with her. But she really worked with me, and she never made me feel stupid. 

She never made me feel like it was impossible. She just really was patient with me. And when I had good days, she was good. And when I had bad days, she'd push through with me and help me figure out what worked best for me. 

Gretchen: How did you feel about yourself as a student? 

Michelle: I was fine as a student. Because, my parents taught me early on, especially my mom. Like, "You get to choose what you want to do." She didn't allow me to use ADHD as an excuse or saying that is not possible. She was like, "It's going to be harder, but you get to choose how hard you get to work and what grade you want." And so, kind of putting that responsibility back on me, I understood that I had to regulate myself a little differently. 

And so, my mom always said, "Well, we know Michelle didn't fall into peer pressure because she did it is cause she wanted to." And that was true. And so, for me, it was hard to focus and try to get things done when I really just wasn't interested. And it could come off as nonchalant or maybe a little disrespectful because I'm not here with you in the room.

But, you know, I will do what I need to do outside the classroom to figure it out. And I didn't care one way or the other. I knew that I knew how to do my work. I just knew when I was going to do it. I was going to make sure I had to turn in on time, and I took care of that. But, you know, some people don't like it when you don't do it how they want it done. 

Rachel: Yeah. So how old were you when you discovered that you had this talent in track and field? And tell us a little bit about how that came about. 

Michelle: Yeah. So I started doing track and field in seventh grade, and this was my first year going to public school, coming from private school. And I tried out and I enjoyed it. I didn't really realize I was good, probably until my freshman year in high school. And I won state my freshman year and both shot put and discus for the state of Texas. And I'm like, "OK, so this is not too bad." 

And, I just kept going with it because my daddy told me, "Get your college paid for that I don't have to pay for it. If you can get your college paid for, guess what? We'll buy you a car." I was like, "That's all I got to do? Got it." 

Gretchen: That's amazing. So, not everybody knows what shot put is, right? So, let's take a detour for a moment. And can you tell us, what is it you're doing? And what kinds of skills and strengths are involved to be able to do that well? 

Michelle: Yeah. So, the shot put is one of the original Olympic sports. And it's pretty much trying to throw a heavy ball as far as you can. That's the name of the game. And so, the ball that I throw is a four-kilogram metal ball, which is 8.8 pounds. And you have a seven-foot, two-inch ring that you have to stay in and can't touch anything outside of inside of that ring, otherwise, it's a foul. 

And you have to do a special technique, a glide, means, I push in a straight line, going backwards to turn around to the front to throw. And then there's a second technique called the spin, where they kind of spin in like a circle and a half to throw. 

Gretchen: It sounds to me obviously it takes strength, but then, technique.

Michelle: You're right, there is strength. You got to be able to create power. There is quickness involved. Got to be light on your feet. Another thing that people don't really think about for my event is flexibility. Because you want to be able to hit these positions and maximize the positions. 

So, having the mobility and flexibility to allow your lower body to go one direction and upper body to go the other direction to create maximum torque, which is power, you know, like flexibility and mobility plays a big role in that. And that was like one of my superpowers that allowed me to throw far without being the absolute strongest. 

Gretchen: So, did having ADHD or dyslexia ever cause any challenges for you as an athlete? Like, did anything come up at all with coaches that they needed to know about? Anything you can think of? 

Michelle: No, because really, my dad has been my coach pretty much my whole career. So he was used to it. 

Gretchen: And so your dad, he coached you throughout, like, your Olympic career? 

Michelle: Yes. 

Gretchen: Wow. What about in, when you started track and field in high school at the public school? Was he your coach there too? 

Michelle: He was my coach there too. So he's always been there because, a little fun fact, my dad is also an Olympic silver medalist in the 1984 Olympic Games. And I didn't know that because my dad also played professional football for the San Francisco 49ers. 

Gretchen: Ooo, 49ers!

Michelle: So I grew up with him playing football. I didn't know about his track and field career because that happened in '84 and I was born in '85, so I had no idea. And so, he knew that they were going to be very high expectations of me because his name is Michael Carter, my name is Michelle Carter. You know, people are going to automatically know like, "You have to be his daughter." 

And so, he knew that there were going to be high expectations so he kind of was hands-on from the very first day with me. Making sure that I knew how to do this throw correctly because he knew that people are going to be expecting big things from me. 

Rachel: Wow. So, for parents of kids who are maybe struggling with ADHD or some learning and thinking difference, maybe something else, can you make a case for why encouraging that kid pick up a sport might be helpful? Like, what can participating in sports offer a kid who may be just getting frustrated in school or at home and they just like, kind of, feel a little lost? 

Michelle: Well, I do believe that it's a physical outlet. I've been reading that most or a lot of people with ADHD have some kind of tic that they do. They fidget, they may bite their nails, they may buy their tongue. There's something that they do that's like a physical outlet of energy. So, I do think sports is great because it gives them a moment to just get that energy out, let their brains kind of be free while they're making their bodies work. 

Gretchen: There happen to be a lot of high-achieving athletes like you who have talked about having ADHD. Right. Like I'm thinking obviously we've got Simone Biles, Michael Phelps. I think track star Justin Gatlin might have said he had ADHD. So, is there a connection there? Might ADHD be a superpower for some people? What do you think about that? 

Michelle: I believe that wholeheartedly. Your brain just processes differently. And when you’re able to look at things and process things, you can get results that other people can't get. 

Gretchen: And I wonder too, do you think — because I know you said earlier that, you know, when you like something, you can really focus on it — do you think that ADHD hyperfocus has to do with some of folks' success in sports? 

Michelle: Most definitely, because you're willing to push yourself past this normal pain threshold that most people quit, right? If you're able to do that, one more set, but then that one-more-set turned into like, 15 one-more-sets, right? Because we want to get it figured out so badly that we're willing to go past where most people are not willing to go. 

Rachel: So, you are a role model for a lot of kids, and especially girls in sports. Tell us about You Throw Girl, your sports camp, and what made you want to do it? 

Michelle: Yeah. So, You Throw Girl Sports Confidence Camp, is my summer program that I'm super duper excited about. This summer we are expanding it to five days and spending the night with teenagers. I know, it's like, "What am I getting myself into? A weekend is hard, now I'm about to do five days?" But why I created this camp was because most sports camps are the bare minimum for kids. 

You go there, you might get a sandwich, you might not. You got water. And it's all about the sport. Like, "You got to learn this technique and then you're out the door." Well, camps like that were boring to me. "How many free throws I gotta throw today?" Right? You know, it's like I went to a sports camp like that. And the theme song was, "All we do is eat and play basketball, eat and play basketball, eat and play basketball, sleep." And they was not lying cause that's all we did, and which is appropriate at times, I get it. 

But I also wanted a summer camp that cared about everything about who I was as a young woman. And I thought in my mind, it'll be so cool to go to a sports camp where I'm also working on goals, where I'm also learning different things about myself. 

Because I truly believe my confidence — and people ask all the time: "Child, why are you so confident? How were you confident as a female athlete, especially being a plus-size female athlete? — when you're bigger, taller than the average person, in people's eyes, you’re supposed to be insecure. You're supposed to be insecure. But why are you so confident? And if you're confident, how can you get my daughter to be confident? Like, those were the questions I was getting.

And so, I realized this was a thing, because I wasn't just only focused on me as an athlete. I was allowed to do other things. And I think that that helped me be confident in who I am in general. So these kids, these young girls are lacking confidence is not because they're lacking confidence in sport. They're lacking confidence and they don't fully believe and trust in who they are as young women. 

So, now if I take you in your sport where you might be confident in this one area in life, but in everything else you might not, let me combine it all. And I want you to be confident no matter what you do. If you do sports or not, you're going to know how to set goals. You want to know how to have some financial literacy. 

You're going to have etiquette, so when you do well in whatever you do well, you know how to sit at a table and use every single fork and spoon that's laid in front of you, you're going to learn how to walk and talk with confidence. You're going to know how to introduce yourself when you walk into a room. 

Just giving them these tools that I was given by my parents just in life. Everybody didn't have what I have. And I understand that that's, you know, that's rare. So I want to provide that, where parents may not feel or may not know themselves, or maybe their daughters don't listen to them, but they'll listen to me. 

I want to put you in an environment where you're around other girls and women that you can relate to, who are doing amazing things, and you might see yourself in them. And next thing you know, these girls out here doing things they never thought they could do. 

Gretchen: I just love that it's like a whole-person camp. 

Rachel: So awesome. 

Gretchen: It really is. 

Michelle: Thank you. 

Gretchen: And so, you know, you have this amazing camp that you're running. And so, as an adult now, do you feel impacted by ADHD or dyslexia, and if so, how do you manage that? Do you feel like you've got strategies you use? Because obviously, like running a business like this, that takes a lot of organization, right? 

Michelle: Yes. I'm still working through my strategies because number one, I work well under pressure. Waiting for the last minute to do things always work well, but doesn't always work well for sponsorships. 

Gretchen: Right. 

Michelle: For, you know, for things of that nature. So, this year, I have a friend who's going to help me with some organization things. And I've been better at planning ahead, trying to get things done, creating my own deadlines to get things done in a timely manner. Like, my fliers will be up and the registration will be up this week. This is probably the earliest I've ever done it. 

But, you know, just like little things like that, getting other people involved helps. Because they're like, "Michelle you know, you should have had this done." And I'm like, "Oh, thank you." So, just adding people in the mix of what I'm doing and accepting help, is helping me. I am a physical planner type of girl. If I don't write it, it don't exist. So, I know that about myself. And then also, lately I realized I need a good 7 to 8 hours of sleep. 

Gretchen: Oh yeah. I 100% agree. 

Michelle: It's not an option for me anymore. And I think this is something that people just got to talk about in general. We live in a culture where we hustle and grind so much, and we are wearing ourselves out trying to live by these standards that are just made up. And so, I realize when I get sleep, I can think so much better throughout the day. Maybe my work days don't always have to be eight hours. 

You know, knowing that about me, I do two hours here, take a break. Take an hour there, take a break. It looks different because I understand I can focus, but then I also gotta have my mind that tends to relax. Because it can become overwhelming. And then when I get overwhelmed, I get tired. My brain shuts down, and then my body shuts down. And then, I'm out of commission for like a couple of days. 

Gretchen: Right. 

Michelle: And that's something I'm doing recently, realizing that there's some things I do have to get done in a certain time, and that's fine. But there's some things I can take my time on, and do it at the pace that I need to do it, so that I can be excellent at what I do and not turn in half-effort work. 

Rachel: Yeah, that's really great. And I think just going back to the first part of your answer about kind of keeping your business moving and bringing some people in who can help you in certain areas. Creating that accountability for yourself that helps me so much with like, it's almost like — I feel like this is kind of silly but — like having a gym buddy. 

Michelle: I think they call the term like, is it shadow work?

Gretchen: Or body doubling? 

Michelle: Doubling! So, when I'm cleaning up, I don't need you to help me clean up. I just want you to sit in the room while I clean up. 

Gretchen: Yeah. 

Michelle: If you can sit there and talk to me, I'm about to get this whole house together. But if I'm here by myself, I'm like, "Oh, my God, I can't clean up." I guess it creates that pressure that makes me get it done. I'm not sure, but it just feels so much better to have somebody else. 

Gretchen: Yeah. No, I've seen my own kids FaceTime their friends and they're doing their homework. Because I'll walk in the room and my daughter will be like, "Well mom, don't say anything like, I'm on FaceTime." And I'm like, "You are? But you're so quiet." She's like, "Yeah, we're doing homework." But they're not actually interacting, it's just that accountability. "Oh, she's looking down? I'm going to be looking down." 

Michelle: Yeah yeah I love it. 

Rachel: So, do you have any tips for families with kids who have ADHD or dyslexia? 

Michelle: I do. One is, allow your kids to be them. I think sometimes it may be a little annoying, they may get on your nerves a little bit, but they need their moment to fully express themselves. 

Because in the rest of the world, they have to contain themselves in some type of way, right? At school they may have to contain themselves and, sometimes their relationship with their friends, because they're different, they have to contain themselves. But when they come home, create a safe space for them to fully be them, to have their moment so they don't feel judged, where they don't feel like they have to pretend to be something else, they can just be them. 

And then, my other encouragement, I would say for families, just change your view or even how you view ADHD and dyslexia. Is not a handicap. It may feel like that and there may be some really hard times, but at the end of the day, they just think differently. And you want to encourage them to continue to think differently because you don't know what they could actually discover in life. You don't know what they have to offer because you don't understand it. 

But if your child kind of found their lane and they're doing things, allow them to do that and encourage them. Let them know that they are smart. Let them know that they can do it. "It's going to be different, but you can do it. Let's figure this out together." Because I think if I didn't feel confident about who I was, I think I would be a totally different person,a totally different person. 

I was taught to not care about what other people thought about me, because I realized that some people thought I was low, but I didn't care. And I think that makes a big difference in a child's life. When they know when they can come home, they're loved, they're supported, and they are free to be themselves. And that helps build that confidence in who they are. 

Gretchen: All right, so we have one last thing before we go. Because of course, we want to talk a little more about your Olympic career. So, you've been to the Olympics multiple times, and you won gold in 2016. What the heck is it like to go to the Olympics? Like, you know, we watch it and we see all these amazing athletes and we're just like, "Oh my God, how do they do any of this?" But like, what is it like there? Is it fun? Is it terrifying? Like, what's the vibe? How's the food? 

Michelle: Oh, OK. So, I've been three times and I feel like I've had three different experiences. 

Gretchen: OK. 

Michelle: My very first one was in ‘08 in Beijing, China, and I was completely overwhelmed and nervous. Because it was my first Olympic Games and I didn't know how to really manage my emotions and the energy that I was carrying. And because there's something special about the whole world is invested in you when you make the Olympic team, right? 

So, I'm not carrying my emotions and my dreams and the things that I want. I'm carrying along my city, my town, and essentially the country. So, in 2012, I realized, "OK, my second team, I can't talk to everybody. I can't take all the interviews and I'm not even answering like, messages on social media anymore. Even though it's all encouraging, it can be so overwhelming for the athlete. 

So, but also that Olympic Games I did all the things. Like, whatever they could do at the Olympic Games, I did it all. I did opening and closing ceremonies. I went to all the sponsorship houses. I was out there getting whatever was free for the athletes. I did it all. I went to all the parties. That was my Olympic Games to kind of just enjoy the Olympics. And then, when I got to Rio, I was really about business. Because prior to that, I was injured. And so, my Olympic Games was actually my fourth track meet of the year. 

Gretchen: Oh, wow. 

Michelle: And so, I had to focus. I didn't do opening ceremonies because I couldn't, you know, exert the extra energy. I was like, the most chilled, relaxed person that I've ever been in my entire life at the Olympic Games. And so, when I went out there to compete and everything turned out the way that it did, I end up winning on my very last throw. 

And I'm just sitting back reflecting like, it took 20 years to get to this moment. Everything that I've experienced, everything that I've been through, good, bad or indifferent, has led me to this one moment in life. And I was just grateful for the experience — even though it took longer than I wanted — but I wouldn't trade it for the world because it helped me become the woman that I needed to be. Not just for that moment, but for life. 

Gretchen: Wow. Wow. And we want to know, when you get your medal and you go on the podium... 

Rachel: I feel like you want to know.

Gretchen: I know. Are you there in your body or are you just like someplace else because you just can't believe you're getting this medal?

Michelle: Well, for me, I was actually fully there in a moment. And the reason why, because I truly believe in the power of visualization. Right? 

I saw myself doing this so many times that it wasn't an out-of-body experience because I'm like, "I knew I can get here. I've seen myself here. I know exactly what's going to happen. We're going to walk out and I'll be in the middle, and then they're going to do third place on this side and second place on this side. 

And then when it's my turn, I get to step up in the middle. I'm gonna step up. They will call my name. I'm gonna wave to all the people then I'm gonna bend over. They're going to hand me my flowers. Kiss me on my cheek. Put my medal on my head." 

Like, I had it all like, laid out and it happened exactly like that. But then what was so beautiful about the moment was that I was able to observe who was at my medal ceremony. So, I'm looking in the audience and I see my dad, and then I see some of the coaches. And there were other athletes, and there were these people who actually came from the United States and was there in that moment. 

And then I meet these people later on, like I met somebody a few months ago. He said, "I was at Rio when you threw and I came to your medal ceremony." So, just to share that moment, not just with myself, but those who were there, but then also with the entire world. Like it wasn't just my moment. It was our moment, for whatever reason why you related to me? 

Gretchen: That's amazing. 

Rachel: I just want to jump in with a quick thing before we wrap up. So, this is actually kind of going back to your dad's Olympics. So, I was eight for the 1984 Olympics, and I was obsessed with the Olympics. And I found an old diary recently of mine, where I wrote in it, like in these crazy eight-year-old-style bubble letters, like, "I must go to the Olympics!" 

I was like, just completely taken with the whole idea of the Olympics. And like, I have to say this now because like, eight-year-old me, that kid's head is exploding. Like, I'm getting to talk with you. And that your dad was also an Olympic medalist. It's so amazing. And it's just, like, really great to get to have this conversation. 

Gretchen: That's awesome Rachel. 

Rachel: That's a fangirl moment. 

Michelle: I definitely get it. I understand. I love it. I absolutely love it. 

Rachel: For more about Michelle Carter, including a fun video she did for us a few years ago. Check out our show notes. 

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you. 

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we've covered today, check out our show notes. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. 

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Ilana Millner is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Ericco wrote our theme music. 

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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