The Art of Throwing
On the shot put, with Michelle Carter.
The Art of Throwing
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 035, July 2021
By Liam Boylan-Pett
When she stepped into the circle, placing her right foot on the back edge of the circle and hoisting the 8.82-pound shot into position in the enclave where her neck and shoulder meet, Michelle Carter had already thrown seven times that day. Earlier that morning in Rio on August 12, 2016, she had thrown twice to qualify for the final of the Olympics with 11 other women. That evening she had thrown five times. The throws were consistent in the final—19.12, 19.82, 19.44, 19.87, and 19.84 meters—and her best left her in a tie for second behind the defending gold medalist Valerie Adams of New Zealand, who had thrown 20.42 meters to go into the final round leading.
Carter was tired, sure, but she had prepared for this exact moment. She knew very well shot put competitions were often won on a competitor’s first throw—when athletes were peppy and full of energy. Carter prided herself on being able to throw well late in competition, too, even when she was fatigued. And it was just like any other meet, she had told herself earlier in the day. She was competing against many women she knew and respected for the umpteenth time—it was just that there were millions of people watching on T.V. for once. It was just like any practice, too. She had gone through the motions countless times, perfecting a dip here or a scrunch there that put her body in the perfect position to glide across the circle from back to front to launch a heavy ball through the air. The repetitiveness was why she was ready, even on her final throw of the night, for something big.
Standing at the edge of the circle, the steel orb nudged against her and held by her right hand, Carter took one more deep breath and began.
In an upright position with her right elbow extended like a referee calling a charging foul, she first lifted her left arm from straight out in front of her while bending her left knee to bring that leg’s foot up behind her. In one motion, she extended her left arm in front and her left leg behind for an instant before bringing them both down in a circular motion toward her right foot, like a claw machine at an arcade. From that crouched position, filled with kinetic energy ready to burst, her left arm and left leg bounced up and out. Carter’s right foot then sprung toward the middle of the circle, propelling her body into motion. Her torso twisted counterclockwise toward the front of the throwing circle as her left leg kicked ahead to the edge of the circumference. Her right arm was still angled, and her hand held the ball tight against her neck and shoulder, but as her hips opened up, the power from her right foot shot up through that side of her body. Carter’s right arm began to push the shot up and away.
The ball left the grip of her hand and soared through the air.
It was a thing of beauty.
Carter is not throwing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being held in 2021. Earlier this year, doctors discovered a tumor on her ankle. It was removed and tested, and fortunately was not cancerous. Recovering from the procedure, however, Carter opted not to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials. She watched from the stands as Jessica Ramsey, Raven Suanders, and Adelaide Aquilla qualified for the Games. For the first time since 2008, Carter, whose father was a silver medalist in the shot put in 1984 and three-time Super Bowl champion, will not be competing on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I realize that things happen and that’s a part of life,” she told NBC Dallas Fort Worth. “And you’ve kind of got to take things as they come.”
I spoke with Carter before she had withdrawn from the Olympic Trials. I was going to write a story about her 2016 Olympic experience and, perhaps, going to Tokyo to throw again. Speaking over Zoom, Carter happily relived moments from her career. Cheery and smiley throughout our chat, she lit up even more when I asked her about the technical side of the shot put—explaining training and methods to perfect the event.
While Carter may not be competing, she is lending a voice to the Tokyo Games as a field analyst for NBC Sports and PeacockTV.
Her knowledge is ready for the small screen. There’s an art to the shot put, and Carter is ready to show the world.
Track and field television analysts are often lambasted by track and field aficionados for attempting to “dumb down” coverage of the sport. But, if you want to see how difficult it is to throw the shot put, go find a four kilogram steel ball or rock (16 pounds for men) and try to toss it as far as you can. If you throw it like a baseball, good luck using your arm for a few days. If you try to throw it like a shot putter, good luck coming close to getting it right. Throwers have been perfecting it for years.
All the way back in Ancient Greek times, Homer wrote about soldiers seeing who could throw rocks the farthest during the Siege of Troy. Histories of more structured competitions did not appear until the first century in the Scottish Highlands, with events akin the modern-day shot put, hammer throw, and javelin. The beginnings of the shot put was based on throwing rocks, not quite as sexy as the hammer throw’s connection to Thor’s hammer and sledgehammers, but still a fun feat of strength.
In the Middle Ages, the rocks turned into cannonballs, which more closely resembled today’s shot put. Somewhere along the line, the throwing circle was introduced. Measuring 7 feet in diameter with a “toe board” that is about 4 inches high at the front of the circle, throwers must complete their attempt within the circle. Each throw is measured from the inside of the circumference of the circle out to the mark left by the ball closest to the circle. The event was contested at the first modern Olympics for the men in 1896, and women began throwing in 1948. American men have dominated the event since that first Olympics, winning 50 of the 84 possible Olympic medals in the shot. American women, however, have only won two medals.
With world record holder Ryan Crouser and 2019 World Champion Joe Kovacs leading the way, U.S. men could sweep the medal stand. The women, led by Ramsey and Saunders and their top three world rankings, have a real shot at a medal.
If you’re watching on PeacockTV, Carter should have a chance to explain the event to those watching at home. It will be interesting to see how much she “dumbs” it down.
“All year during the delay because of the pandemic,” Carter said, “I was trying to keep my strength up and getting stronger, but I was also ironing out my technique. I was trying to shorten the reaction time from the center of the ring, but also making sure the timing with my left arm and my right arm, from my upper body to my lower body, was all on the same page. I was building the strength and technique and trying to smooth it out so when I started to sharpen, I could be explosive, too.”
The basic gist of training for the shot put is a lot like distance running or training for really any other thing. An athlete builds a base that allows them to do more difficult, intricate things, then they begin adding in those implements, sharpening their way to the ideal performance at the right time. At least, that’s the dream.
Shot putters build their base in many ways. Whether through some cardio or in the weight room. Crouser and Kovacs post lifting videos that astound. Crouser benching 500 pounds seems like a walk in the park, and Sports Illustrated even shared a video of Kovacs squatting 800 pounds four times. There is an art and science to building a base. The technique in the circle, however, is its own kind of process.
While Crouser and Kovacs use the spin technique, in which they spin about one-and-a-half times through the circle before launching the shot and spinning some more, Carter and many women throwers employ the glide technique. Explained in terms of Carter’s final throw at the 2016 Olympic Games, the glide is all about bottling up torque before releasing it in a fury across the seven-foot circle. To build as much power as possible, Carter said, is all about making sure every part of the process is impeccable.
Carter records many of her throws and exercises during practice. Having thrown for almost 25 years, she was an N.C.A.A. champion for the University of Texas in 2006, Carter knows when to look for something. “I can tell when something’s a little off,” she says, “I can tell when my upper body is going before my lower body.” So, when training, she watches video to see exactly what went wrong. The key to a great glide is to have everything in sync. One slight misstep or jerk of a muscle and other little missteps will occur. Like a private detective going over security footage, Carter eventually spots the problem. Then she asks, “How can I fix it?”
“So I’ll play around with different things to get the result I need,” Carter says. “Sometimes you can do the same thing over and over, and to change something for a quarter of a second is hard.” That could mean not bringing her left arm up quite as high as it needs to be or slowing down the twist of her hips. “You have to dig deep deep and get creative to figure out how to change something—focusing on those changes is how you can make them turn into something you no longer think about, but just do.” It’s a tedious process, and repetition is what it takes to perfect the throws. That tediousness helps with later round throws, Carter knows. Which is something she prides herself on. Since throwing in high school, it’s a process Carter has been perfecting.
I asked her to explain her perfect throw. She jumped at the chance.
“I don’t have to think about stepping into the circle when I start to throw,” she says. “I actually walk in the ring at the meets the same way I do it in practice. So that’s really autopilot for me. Then, I really think about where my body is going to be when I’m coming out of the back of the ring. I like to hit this ‘T’ position where my left leg is up, my right foot is down, and my left arm is extended out, and it looks like you’re almost on this little crooked T. And so, when I come down from there I can just imagine how that feels. I imagine being tall and long in that T, but then also coming back and crouching as scrunching everything together. I get into that tiny little ball for a moment and then shift my weight and push and gain this momentum and power going toward the center of the ring. So then I feel myself scrunching down into this low and tight position, and I push back, staying over my right leg. As my right foot bounces back and hits the center and my left foot hits toward the toe board—we’re trying to get them down at the same time; it’s always going to be a little off, but we want them down as close as possible together. And then from there, this is where all the magic happens. I want to create more power by really driving up with my legs first. So, I want to create this power by really pushing on the ground and pushing my hips forward, but also keeping my upper body over my right side, and then twist while I’m still trying to stay over my right leg. Once that twist starts at the end, I’m finally able to kind of push the shot through. Hopefully, there is just this feeling of effortlessness. My best throws, they don’t feel like work. They felt really easy because when you really work, the technique and science is going to work. And so, when I know I hit the right position, I know because the throw feels effortless.”
The ball soared through the Rio sky effortlessly on August 12, 2016. The torque Carter had created when she scrunched up did not stop when she released the orb. The momentum carried her right foot forward. At the same moment she pulled her left foot back, avoiding crossing the barrier of the toe box. That left leg, too, had momentum, but she held it as her right foot steadied her, once again creating a small, crooked T as the shot reached its apex. Her momentum halted, Carter slammed her left foot down and turned her head to the right just in time to see the ball land with a thud in the grass of the infield at Olympic Stadium.
It was well beyond the 20-meter mark. Officials marked it exactly 20.63 meters out into the field—67 feet, 8¼ inches for those who like U.S. measurements. It was her best throw by 0.39 meters. It came on her final throw of the night. It was an American Record. And, once Adams of New Zealand mustered a 20.39-meter final throw moments later, it was good enough for gold—a feat no other U.S. woman had ever accomplished.
But was it a perfect throw?
“My last throw,” Carter said, “was when I finally felt that one thing, I was trying to feel that whole track meet.” It felt almost effortless. “But then after a little bit I looked at the film, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I can do this, I can do that.’”
Carter explained that you could always go back and adjust, but that it was one of the best throws of her career. “It has the distance to prove it,” she said.
When we spoke before the Olympic Trials, at the end of our time together, I asked Carter if there was anything else she would like to add.
She thought for a moment before starting. “When you choose to believe in yourself and do the work to show that you believe in yourself, you always win. And when I saw ‘always win’ it may not always show up the way that you think it will. You may not receive what you think you should, but when you show up as your best, good things can happen.”
Five years after her gold medal win, Carter may not be in the exact spot she pictured. She is, however, giving a voice to an event she loves—and once again doing it on the sport’s biggest stage.