The shot putter nabbed gold at her third Games, becoming the first American ever to win in the event, and gained a legion of fans for being unabashedly herself.
“I was pretty amazed by people’s reactions, but it’s something that I truly believe for myself, because I’ve dealt with those issues,” Carter, 31, tells PEOPLE of being seen as a body image role model. “And you go in and out of that, especially when your body changes for whatever reason. And I’m just glad that something that I used to pick up on could help others as well.”
Carter explains that while she’s found her body confidence now, in 2012 she was at a major low. The USA Track and Field athlete, who also works as a makeup artist, was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
“That was hard, because my body was going through so many changes that I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “I gained over 100 lbs. that I could never lose, my hair was falling out, I was tired all the time, I couldn’t maintain muscle, I had no energy. It gave me some relief that there was something actually wrong with me and I wasn’t crazy, but it was really hard knowing that there is something wrong with my body and I couldn’t fix it.”
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Her self-image sunk as her body shifted out of her control, though medicine — and shot put — kept Carter going.
“Even though I was dealing with all of these health issues, I was still doing well during my season,” she says. “It wasn’t the best season, but it was consistent. And I figured if I could be this consistent when I’m not my best, what happens when I get better, where could I be? So I wanted to see what I would be like on the other side.”
And Carter worked on accepting her body.
“I regained my confidence by just accepting what my body is now,” she says. “Because I kept thinking, ‘Oh I’ll lose the weight, I’ll get back to where my body used to be,’ and in actuality, I have a whole different body now. And I have to relearn my body and what it does for me now, and not what used to work for me.”
That confidence helped her find the mindset to win gold, and in the days afterwards when she had people doubting that she could be an athlete at her size.
“Athletes can not look the same, and be great in their individual sport,” Carter explains. “The example I like to use is Gabby Douglas. She could not flip in the air if she was built like me, but then Gabby Douglas couldn’t throw the shot put. I was built like this because I was made to throw the shot put.”
“Some people are meant to be bigger, and that’s okay. Because if everybody was built the same, it would be a little boring. We enjoy the differences in each other, and I think that’s what makes all of us beautiful.”