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Class of 2011: Write on target

Graduating student Lindsey Carmichael is a Paralympic archer shooting for gold in the literary world.

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About 7,500 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 128th spring commencement this Saturday, May 21. Each graduate has a unique story. To celebrate the Class of 2011, we’re highlighting 10 stories, profiling students who have overcome obstacles, discovered new dimensions and doggedly pursued their academic goals.

A passing comment from a sixth-grade teacher sent Lindsey Carmichael, a senior majoring in history and English, on the road to the Olympics.

When the math teacher overheard her talking with her best friend about the girl’s softball team, he blurted, “I bet you could do archery in a wheelchair.”

“He just wanted to make me feel better about not being able to play softball and then go on with his day,” says Carmichael, who was diagnosed at age 4 with McCune Albright Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes weak spots in her bones. “But that one comment completely changed my life.”

On a whim, Carmichael and her friend convinced their parents to take them to an archery club near their hometown in Lago Vista. After a couple of weeks her friend dropped out, but Carmichael carried on, driven by her desire to compete.

Now a two-time Paralympian at age 25, Carmichael is one of the world’s greatest archers. In Athens, she set a world record in the ranking round and finished sixth overall. She later went on to win the bronze medal in Beijing, making her the first female archer representing the United States to medal in a singles competition in 34 years.

Unlike most sports that require strong, powerful physiques, Carmichael says archery appealed to her because anyone – tall, short, heavyset or even one-armed can compete. The strength, she notes, comes from the mind.

After some bad tournaments in 2005, Carmichael’s self-confidence dwindled, causing her to develop Target Panic, a common phenomenon among archers that causes athletes to falter before making a shot. During a critical match in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, the unrelenting anxiety caused her to miss a shot that would have landed her in the running for the gold or silver.

“I remember thinking I can just wallow in this horrible feeling or I can suck it up and do what I came here to do,” Carmichael says. “The proudest moment of my life was when I shoved that overwhelming sense of failure out of my mind, walked into the stadium with a smile on my face and won the bronze.”

During tough times, Carmichael harnesses her strength by recalling her favorite quote by basketball coach John Wooden: “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” By focusing on what she can do, she has overcome obstacles on the field and in her studies.

With her positive attitude and strong self-discipline, she won several awards from writing contests for her essays, poetry and short fiction. This spring, she will walk across the stage as one of the 12 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates, a high honor given to graduating seniors for their leadership, scholarly achievements and service to the community.

G. Howard Miller, the Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of Religious Studies and History, says Carmichael may very well be the most extraordinary undergraduate he has ever taught during his 40 years at the university.

“Through years of heroic personal effort and with the steady support of her equally remarkable family, Lindsey overcame very serious obstacles to become a world-class student athlete, a thoughtful and creative student, and an unfailing inspiration to one and all,” says Miller, who recently retired in 2010. “And all this she did with grace, humility and a wonderfully infectious sense of humor. She is truly one of a kind.”

After graduation, Carmichael said she will be “in training” to become a New York Times bestselling author.

“I’m training to be the best writer I can be,” Carmichael says. “If one of my books ever makes it to the New York Times bestselling list, that’s going to be right on par with standing on that podium in Beijing.