As the sun beat down on National Stadium late Sunday morning, after she had thrown her last shot of the Games, Saunders sauntered and danced toward the stands. She received the most appropriate adornment of all. Someone handed her an American flag.
Like many of the athletes wearing “USA” at the Tokyo Olympics, Saunders has helped nudge, if not redefine, the way her country discusses issues of mental health, racial justice and sexual orientation. Just competing here represented a profound victory for Saunders. What she accomplished provided a tangible reward.
Saunders, a 25-year-old from Charleston, S.C., won silver in the shot put, launching her fifth throw 19.79 meters, about 64 feet 11 inches. Only China’s Lijiao Gong surpassed her, at 20.58 meters (67-6), with New Zealand’s Valerie Adams behind her for bronze and U.S. champion Jessica Ramsey unable to mark, hampered by injury.
What Saunders proved in Tokyo is that athletes can tackle heavy topics without sacrificing joy. Saunders shimmied into the mixed zone, asking where she could find champagne and singing, “Celebration.” She described the medal as, “cool. It’s a bonus. It’s a plus.” She felt most excited about what it afforded her.
“Everything that I’ve been through mental health-wise, injuries, financial, being able to really invest everything I’ve had mentally and physically and be able to walk away with a medal, and be able to go out here and really inspire so many people of the LGBTQ community, so many people who have been dealing with mental health issues, so many people of the African American community, so many people who are Black all around the world,” Saunders said. “I really just hope I can continue to inspire and motivate.”
On the morning of her first Tokyo appearance, Saunders dyed her hair two colors, bisected down the middle. Normally, Saunders makes it all green.
“Kind of an ode to the Joker but also a way to switch it up a little bit — you know, create a little bit of shock value,” Saunders said Friday. “I know everybody was probably expecting the green, so I had to change it up.”
Saunders has a way of defying expectations. She has the sneer and the brawn of a world-class shot putter during meets — and then displays her bubbly, infectious personality afterward. She has enough confidence to talk about taking the top spot on the podium at the next world championships — then mentions the self-described mental health breakdown she suffered in 2018. She wears a mask, but she will remove it.
Saunders made her Olympic debut in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, where she finished fifth. She watched American Michelle Carter win the gold and stand highest on the podium. “That’s going to be me,” Saunders thought. “I’m going to make sure that that person is me.”
Still a student and athlete at Ole Miss, Saunders struggled upon her return. She defined herself solely through her successes and failures in the shot put. In 2018, she has said in the past, she considered suicide. She sought therapy and recovered.
The mental health of athletes, and athletes advocating mental health awareness, has been a dominant theme of these Olympics. Saunders was at the vanguard of the discussion.
“It helped me to find my value outside of being an athlete,” Saunders said. “It helped me to find my value and things I love to do outside of the sport, which also helped me grow my love for the sport.”
Saunders arrived at that dark place in 2018, she said, because her sport swallowed her identity whole. People within her circle and those outside it discussed only shot put.
“A lot of people lose sight of asking, ‘Oh, how are you doing actually?’ ” Saunders said. “ … When you’re constantly surrounded by sport talk, sport talk, sport talk and you don’t have any type of escape or any way to give yourself a mental de-stress from it, you kind of get lost in it.”
In late May, less than a month before the U.S. trials, Saunders tore the labrum in her right hip. She had worked for years to reach the Olympics, with much at stake for both personal and financial fulfillment. A few years ago, Saunders read an article online that pegged her net worth at north of $1 million. She posted the estimate next to a screenshot of her bank statement, which showed negative-$538.
With her health in question, Saunders experienced what she described as “a depressive episode.” She knew she needed to reach out to someone close to her and explain what was happening. In tears, she called Gwen Berry, a U.S. hammer thrower who had coached her as a volunteer at Ole Miss and become one of her best friends.
“Raven has been through hell and back this year,” Berry said.
“It’s okay to be strong,” Saunders said. “And it’s okay to not be strong 100 percent of the time. It’s okay to be able to need people.”
On the phone, Berry listened. Talking through her concerns relaxed Saunders. She repeated to herself: “You’re going through this for a reason.”
Saunders worked to recover. She made the team with a second-place finish at trials. In Tokyo, she wanted to win. She also wanted to provide a model. She remembered growing up in Charleston what watching Venus and Serena Williams play had meant to her.
“They were young Black girls with beads in their hair, unapologetic,” Saunders said. “For me as a kid, that inspired me to be myself whenever it was I got to where I wanted to be at.”
Saunders, and many others of her age cohort, have provided representatives to kids who may benefit from them back home. Swimmer Erica Sullivan, 20, called herself the “epitome of the American person,” saying, “I’m multicultural. I’m queer. I’m a lot of minorities.” Simone Biles, 24, withdrew from the gymnastics competition to tend to her mental health. Berry raised her fist on a medal stand at the 2019 Pan-Am Games, a fulcrum in forcing the International Olympic Committee and United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to change rules regarding protest.
“I really think that my generation really don’t care,” Saunders said. “At the end of the day, we really don’t care. Shout out to all my Black people. Shout out to all my LGBTQ community. Shout out to all my people dealing with mental health. At the end of the day, we understand it’s bigger than us and it’s bigger than the powers that be. We understand that there’s so many people that are looking up to us that are looking to see if we say something or if we speak up for them.”
She later added: “I’m part of a lot of communities, God dang.”
When Saunders walked out of a tunnel at National Stadium and struck a pose, arms crossed and leaning back, as the public address bellowed her name. Afterward, she removed the mask and twirled the American flag around her body, dancing and posing and smiling for cameras. As she discussed her prior financial strain, she noted that an Olympic medal would bring sponsorships. “We ain’t broke no more, baby!” she sang.
Saunders is a beloved member of the U.S. track and field team. Maybe another athlete would bring an Xbox on the flight to Tokyo, but only Saunders would bring a projector screen for it, too. She and her teammates played Madden, Monopoly and Grand Theft Auto. It felt like the shortest flight of her life.
“If there’s a will, Raven will find a way,” Saunders said.
In recent years, Saunders has worn a mask during competition for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus. During meets, many throwers like to talk and laugh between throws. Shot put is where Saunders stows the things that make her angry.
“This is like my way of being friendly, I guess, in a way,” Saunders said, erupting in laughter. “I’m, like, literally the greatest person. But during competition, I don’t like anybody.”
Saunders, like everyone else, must wear a mask everywhere during the pandemic Games. Sometimes she chooses to wear the Joker mask around the Olympic Village.
“I get looks,” she said, laughing again. “I get lots of looks.”
It was suggested that maybe her new nickname, for these Games, should be Joker.
“I’m always the Hulk,” she said. “But you know, got to switch it up. There’s different versions of the Hulk.”
The version Sunday morning came with a medal around her neck, wrapped in the flag.