At age 21, when most of us are just figuring out what we want from our lives, Shelbi Vaughan had already qualified as a discus thrower for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Fast forward two years and she’s already on the fast track toward competing in 2020. Thanks to older brothers who always kept her on her toes, Shelbi started playing sports early on. But it wasn’t until she set out to prove herself to the people who doubted her that she was able to reach her full potential. This interview has been condensed and edited for both clarity and length.
How did you first get into playing sports?
I have two older brothers that I always tried to keep up with. It didn’t always work, but I definitely think it pushed me to be a better athlete. There was cheerleading, football, basketball…all kinds of sports.
You can’t really keep doing five sports at once, so I decided on two sports in college: volleyball and track. Track is really different from other sports. It’s very individualized, but it’s also a team sport. If you have a bad day, it reflects on how you’re performing. But at the same time, you have to come together to get that medal count.
When I started track and field, I was a sprinter. I tried the hurdles, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to be a hurdler after I fell on my face. I was determined to be a sprinter, but then my coach told me, “You need to throw.” I fought her on it, but then I tried and it came really naturally. I think, for most people, they pretty much already know what event they’re going to be in because of their body type. For me, I was tall and thick, fast and strong—so I could do both. That has been really beneficial with the throwing, because you have to be fast in the ring. A lot of people don’t really know that—they just think, “Oh, you’re really big, you need to throw.”
What are the traditional body types for track-and-field athletes?
For throwers, the traditional body type is typically thicker. The smaller, petite girls are usually your distance runners, and your tall, lanky, but strong girls are usually your pole vaulters or jumpers. When I went to the Olympics, the body types were really different in the discus—there was a short, really skinny girl who was really good, but there was also a girl who was 6’5”. It just goes to show you that you can’t really say, “She’s a basketball player. She’s a discus thrower. She’s a distance runner.” Because you really don’t know. She could be anything.
Was competing in the Olympics always your goal?
Competing in the Olympics wasn’t always my goal. I struggled to believe in myself. I actually have a tattoo on my foot that says, “Believe,” because it took me a while to believe what everybody else was telling me: that I was going to be great at throwing one day. But as I got older and the discus started flying farther and farther, I started to believe.
My senior year of high school, I tried out for the Olympics. I was 17, and I missed making the team by one position. Ever since that day, I was like, “Okay, four years later, I’m making the team. It’s not an option.”
It was my senior year at college when I made the Olympic team. That year was a huge struggle for me personally, and my season didn’t reflect how well I wanted to do. But when the Olympic Trials came around, I remembered telling myself that I was going to make the team. So, I just threw it all out on the line and I went for it—and I made the team.
When you’re training or competing, what do you wear to make sure you’re ready to really “go for it?”
My motto is the same as Michelle Carter’s, the Olympic shot putter: “You feel good, you look good, you throw good.” I think it’s really important that I feel sexy when I’m throwing. I want pieces that fit right and are comfortable. I like to show my legs—I don’t want to feel like I have to cover myself up. A lot of other throwers and athletes are like that, too. They like to have their nails done, their makeup done, their hair done. I don’t know about you, but when you’re going out and you’re just having a lazy day, you don’t feel as good, and you kind of want to hide back in the corner. But when you’re feeling good, you’re on top of the world. It’s the same way when you’re competing.
Have you always been confident?
My body type was always bigger than everyone else in my class. I remember a picture of me with one of my friends in fourth grade, where I’m towering over her like I’m a sixth grader. When I was younger, it wasn’t a struggle for me because it wasn’t pointed out. Then, as I got a little bit older, I couldn’t find clothes like what everybody else was wearing that fit. So, I would actually wear my brothers’ clothes, and then I would get made fun of for it.
As I got older, I kind of gave up on trying to look cute, trying to look like everybody else. My freshman year of high school is when I got my confidence back, because I made the varsity team. I had older friends who told me, “Don’t let these other people discourage you.” The success in sport also helped a lot because it brought a lot of attention to me, and I had to start looking better. I could definitely feel the difference that made. I was feeling good, looking good, and throwing good, so I decided to keep doing it no matter what anybody else was saying.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might be struggling to believe in themselves?
It takes a lot to believe in yourself, especially when you have so many people telling you that you can’t do something. Growing up, there were so many obstacles: I was a female doing male sports for many years, and I also had a bigger body shape and body type. I loved volleyball, but they told me, “You’re probably not going to play volleyball in college.” Fun fact: I got my full scholarship in volleyball, not in track and field. Just because one person tells you that you can’t, there could be ten more telling you that you can.
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