Sports Illustrated: Did you have experience modeling before showing up in-person for #SISwimSearch?
Djaniel Carter: Yes, I have had some experience modeling. However, I haven't always been treated as if I mattered. I was told by the first agency I ever signed with in Arizona that they didn't see anything in me. The dreams I had and the goals I had shared with them weren’t taken seriously. That really hurt me, but at the same time, if that wasn't said to me, I wouldn't be who I am now and so I'm thankful for that moment. I'm currently signed with Wilhelmina Models Sports and Fitness in New York. I haven't really done much with them yet, but I hope to get my health in order soon so I can finally make the move to New York.
SI: What was your casting experience like in Miami?
DC: My casting experience with Sports Illustrated was mind boggling and overwhelming in a fantastic way. Every girl at the casting was amazing. It was very cool how no one was too worried about themselves to not offer help when I was needing it. That was really special to me. At one moment I felt very sick and my body was just extremely tired and weak, pain was really setting in. I started to have whole body tremors and I was ready to give up. Next thing you know I have six or seven sweet girls around me, including one girl's mom. There was so much support all around me. And not just for me, it was universal support.
This also really inspired me because it was really hard for me to show up in a condition that I'm not used to, a condition that I'm very insecure about. Sometimes I feel the need to hide. I don’t want people to know I am not 100% because I don't want to be judged or be told I can't do this. Going to Miami and going after my dreams took all the courage I had.
It’s very hard looking around and realizing you aren't the same as you were before. The potential that YOU believed was better before is not there, and that gets to you. So, on top of the physical pain, it was a constant mental battle that I had to push aside, overcome, and realize that it doesn't matter if I'm different in this way. If anything, it's the biggest blessing I’ve had. My soul has flourished abundantly. Through this experience it was the first time in a long time I felt alive, accepted, and loved by others. Sports Illustrated didn't see me for what my body condition is right now, and that’s a fight I'm going to continue to share because this is new, and it wasn't who I was before, but it doesn't define me and I won't let it.
SI: What does being a part of the SI Swimsuit model search mean to you? How do you plan to use this platform?
DC: Being a part of the SI swimsuit model search means to me that I am strong. When everything and everyone was telling me I couldn’t, I was the only one telling myself I could. You're only as strong as you allow yourself to be and there's nothing or no one that can tell you otherwise–not even your own body! Because the power within you is way stronger than any outside force, or illness, or pain. You are stronger if you believe it.
Being a part of Sports Illustrated is such a huge platform with such inspiring woman and each woman has their own story to tell and their own special light to shine. I want to share my light with the world. My biggest goal is being selfless and just giving back and doing everything I can to not allow anyone to feel the way I have felt before in my life. Ultimately, I want to help the world in whatever way possible. Starting with reminding women that there is no definition of beauty. Who you are and what you bring to this world is beautiful!
SI: In your own words, describe the accident that led to you using a wheelchair and/or cane to assist your walking?
DC: When I was dancing for the Phoenix Suns in 2017, I sustained a traumatic injury. Before the injury, I started noticing that I was not able to participate in the workouts compared to my rookie year with the team. During preseason, I found myself sitting in the locker room in pain just crying before the game started. When I was sitting in the locker room alone, I knew that I wasn't going to make it through the season. I hadn't accepted it yet because I was still determined to try and make it. Sadly, in the back of my mind I knew that something was extremely wrong.
After the third preseason game, I attended a Christian concert with my favorite artist, Tauren Wells, and while leaving the concert, I fell. I tripped over nothing. I'm pretty sure my legs just gave out. My ankles swelled up, my knees, and my legs were both swollen, and I couldn't walk. I immediately went to the emergency room, but it took a lot to get me there because I was still having trouble accepting what was going on. Until this day, no one knows exactly what happened.
The following morning, we had several calls with our insurance to find an orthopedic doctor to look at my legs. Basically, the doctor explained to me that my left knee was completely dislocated, my right knee was sliding off track as well, and because of my legs being in the condition they were in, I had nearly fractured both my ankles. My surgeon told me that a lateral knee release was necessary for my left leg, and he wanted to go in and clean up the right side as well. I had my first lateral knee release on November 9th and then my second on December 21st.
After that, I was attempting to attend physical therapy, but there was still some pain in my legs that was inhibiting me from fully bouncing back. I was also extremely off balance. I would try to take class and find myself sitting down at every opportunity possible. After attempting to “bounce back” I was having some issues with my arm and my leg. I assumed I was just really weak and I needed to do more physical therapy. After a few months of trial and error, I decided to go to the Mayo Clinic to see a specialist. The pain I was experiencing and still experience is sometimes unbearable.
At this point, it was Fall 2018. I still wasn't working because l was unable to. As my pain was continuing to grow and I was experiencing more weakness, Mayo Clinic did confirm a central nervous system disconnection. This was a suggestion based on the incidental finding in my brain MRI displaying activity that would suggest multiple diseases/conditions.
Mayo Clinic wanted me to attend their pain clinic so they could assist me in doing day-to-day activities and see what was going on, but unfortunately they didn't accept our insurance for this particular treatment.
When you are young, previously active, and don’t appear sick there’s a lot of opportunity for judgment. The physical medicine specialist told me to just pick a new career and that sometimes we don't get the things we want. The neurologist laughed at me when I told him I was having trouble walking. He told me I looked fine and I could walk. I was like, “wait a minute you’re not in my body.”
From December 2018 to about February 2019, I just stopped caring. I was tired of explaining myself and begging for help. I wasn’t very full of hope. In March 2019, my primary care doctor suggested that I go to Arizona Pain Relief and start with that, so at least I wouldn’t be in pain all the time.
In April 2019 I decided that maybe I just need to do something else. I applied at a call center and I was working at there for about three months before my body said “no this isn't what you want.” It really was beginning to shut down on me more than ever before. When I was sitting at my desk, I couldn't hold my head up, my sentences were not making sense, I was slurring my words, I would get confused, and I wouldn't know what customers were talking about.
I just want an answer. I want to be out of pain. I want to run, walk my dog, clean my room, take dance class, talk how I used too and be “normal.”
This summer I saw a rheumatologist and a new neurologist. Now I'm going to a neuromuscular specialist, along with seeing a specialist in neurosurgery/neurophysiology/neurology. Meanwhile, I am still attending the pain clinic. We discovered with trial of injections that I have sacroiliac dysfunction and piriformis syndrome in both legs. We don't know why I can't keep my head up, why my arm doesn't work the same, why I have extreme trouble walking long distances and standing comfortably, or why I feel like my brain is off.
I am not sure what's next, but I’m not going to let this get me down anymore. Sports Illustrated is the first thing I've been a part of and that has made me feel alive and in many years. I couldn't be more thankful. I might be in pain, and my body might scare me sometimes, but I'll always be fighting and I will never give up. I hope soon we find out what's going on, so we can treat my body with whatever it needs.
SI: What lessons have you learned from your physical trauma? What message do you hope to share with other women who may have physical ailments that they think will keep them from modeling?
DC: First, I want to say I am so thankful. Regardless of the current situation, there is always something, even if it is only one thing, to be thankful for. Then there's the obvious one of YOU CAN NEVER GIVE UP! Because to me when everything and everyone is telling you “no,” that's God telling you “Yes, yes you can do it.” I've learned that the power of your mind and believing in yourself cannot and will not ever be defeated. The message I want woman who have physical aliments to know is that they do not define you because beauty comes from within. We are stronger than what’s trying to remind us that we aren’t! Choose yourself everyday! Take care of what YOU need! Only do what YOU can do. YOU are ALWAYS more than enough. We are warriors.
SI: How did it feel going down the runway with SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day pushing your wheelchair? Could you feel the support and excitement of the crowd?
DC: Going down the runway with MJ day pushing my chair was so fun. It honestly felt so powerful. Yes, there was a part of me that wished I could walk down that runway like everyone else, but at the same time I knew my health was more important. And none of that mattered. I was like “this is what I am here for.” Changing the world, making a difference, inspiring and showing all the fighters out there that YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!
MJ made me feel so comfortable and so welcomed to the SI family. I felt alive for the first time in I couldn’t tell you how long, but its been a long time since a feeling like this. I also felt like, with MJ behind me, the insecurities that were trying to come in just went away. It was like she had my back, literally. I felt safe, like I was finally breathing and living.
See photos from our unforgettable runway show at Miami Swim Week: