WAXAHACHIE — By the time banquet season arrives, the sting of a playoff loss has subsided almost as quickly as the fancy donut bar was devoured. The proverbial horse has been taken out to pasture and the highlight, outside of the handful of awards distributed, is often left up to the guest speaker.

Such was the case for the Red Oak Lady Hawks’ “Winter Wonderland,” the annual volleyball banquet hosted by the booster club. This year, aside from the very real donut bar, Michelle Carter, a 2003 Red Oak graduate and 2016 Olympic Gold medalist, had the honors of capping the year for the Lady Hawks, their parents and supporters.

Carter made it quite clear from the get-go that she did not play volleyball in high school. Not because the uber-talented athlete could not cut it, she claims the shorts were much too short for her liking.

However, she had plenty to say about hard work — a topic Carter has rightfully earned the right to speak at any length or to any group she pleases.

“Hard work pays off,” Carter began her address to throng of wide-eyed and suddenly silent observers, many near the literal edge of their seat.

Carter explained that through the grind of practice, athletes build crucial life skills. Yes, those involve obedience trainings, such as being on time or learning to get along with teammates, but Carter told the room “it’s easy to slack when you know someone has your back, but you have to give 100 percent anyway. You still have to show up and do your job.”

As the great Allen Iverson once questioned a room full of media members, “Practice? We talking about practice? We talking about practice. We not talking about a game, we talking about practice?”

According to Carter, it was the practice she put in during and after a back injury in January that comforted, and ultimately won, her an Olympic gold by defeating Valerie Adams, the reigning two-time defending champion.

Carter took the room on a well-spoken journey through that career defining back injury, which first surfaced after a workout and was a bulging disk by 4 a.m. the following morning. However, she then got sick a few days later. The deep cough that came with Carter feeling under the weather enhanced the bulging disk to a herniated one and caused her left leg to go numb.

“At the end of the day, I still had a goal in mind,” explained Carter when speaking of how she dealt with the rehab. “[…] Just because you are limited doesn’t mean you don’t do anything.”

In fact, the rehab caused Carter to cancel a meet, and then a few more, for the first time in her career. That was when the rumors began.

From a newfound drug addiction to pregnancy to some calling her career a career, Carter humbly laughed as she explained she heard it all and, in essence, let the haters hate.

During the Olympic Trials, there were more than a few who were shocked to see Carter confidently walk into the stadium toting her trusty four-kilogram shot.

“It gave me confidence. I was prepared for that moment,” Carter said as she recounted how she dug deep and pushed herself to move from third place to winning the trials after the extended competition hiatus.

Then, in Rio de Janeiro during the XXXI Olympiad, Carter was sitting between second and fourth place through four of the five-round championship after qualifying by “that much.”

However, 20.63 meters later and on her fifth-and-final throw, Carter said “it felt good” when the shot left her hand. She then laughed as she recalled having to keep her composure, as not to jinx the outcome with television cameras all around even those she was “happy on the inside.”

After all, Adams still had her fifth throw, but that story has already been told.

“No one could believe it because no one expected me to win. But I believed it,” Carter said. “[…] I realized that if no one was going to believe in me that I had to believe in myself. Believe that you can do it because you can do it.”

It took Carter 20 years of practice to position herself to where one throw could win the Olympics. Twenty years of grinding, learning to be obedient to her craft and building life skills.

Carter ended her address by telling the same Lady Hawks — who were not expected by many to make the postseason, let alone win 30 games and finish with 5A Bi-District and Area Championships or as the No. 17 team in the Texas Girls Coaches Association's poll — that, “You don’t pass a test you don’t study for. You don’t win a game you don’t practice for”

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Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith

(469) 517-1470