Known for her Hulk face mask and now Olympic silver medal, Raven Saunders is so much deeper

TOKYO — When Raven Saunders steps into the shot put circle, she wants you to see a Black woman.

She wants you to see a queer woman.

She wants you to see someone who battles depression.

And now you have to see her as all of those things and an Olympic silver medalist.

The 25-year-old South Carolina native was second in her event final on Sunday, with a best throw of 19.79 meters, or 64 feet, 11 inches. China's Lijiao Gong was the gold medalist with a lifetime best of 20.58m (67-6.25), and the ageless New Zealander Valerie Adams won bronze at 19.62m (64-4.5).

Saunders revealed after her joyous on-track celebration — one in which she twerked in her "sprinters panties," did an imaginary hair flip and vogued like a supermodel with the American flag — that she'd torn the labrum in her right hip just weeks before the U.S. Olympic Trials, and also "tweaked" an Achilles in the preliminaries on Friday. But she did what she's been doing for years: She fought.

On the podium, she threw up her arms in an "X" symbol, which she said represented "the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet." It was the most high-profile protest at these Olympics thus far — and entirely keeping with her personality and drive.

Raven Saunders' style and success have attracted attention these Olympics. Here's why she does what she does. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)
Raven Saunders' style and success have attracted attention these Olympics. Here's why she does what she does. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

Inspired as a girl by Venus and Serena Williams to bring her full self to the spaces she aspired to reach, Saunders was introduced and walked onto the infield at Tokyo Olympic Stadium Sunday wearing oversized mirrored shades, her short natural hair colored green on one side and purple on the other, and with her now-famous Hulk face mask strapped in place.

Despite being just 5-foot-5, she cut an intimidating figure, and that's part of the point. After prelims on Friday, Saunders said the mask initially was necessary because of COVID-19, but she's found it serves as a sort of "keep away" sign during competitions, when she'd rather stay to herself than chit-chat with others between throws.

But when she steps into the circle, she starts talking. To herself.

"I like to be my biggest supporter — I really can’t repeat it because y’all are going to have to bleep out most of the things I say anyway, but pretty much to sum it up I’m telling myself, 'You got it, you got it, you’re a champion, you have to push, you gotta push, nobody is going to give it to you, you have to work, you have to grind, you gotta get it,'" Saunders said. "Things like that, just a lot of positive affirmations to be able to give myself the power and be able to get done what I need to get done."

On Sunday, Saunders knew Gong would be ready. She beat the 32-year-old the last time they met, at the 2018 World Athletics Continental Cup, but Gong, like Adams, has been one of the best female shot putters in the world for years.

Saunders went first and threw 19.65m (64-5.5). Gong threw 19.95m (65-5.5) on her first throw, and it was on.

"I like to say I don’t want anything easy. I never want anything easy because I know in life it’s going to be a dog fight," Saunders said. "A lot of things aren’t going to come to you easy, so I was kind of expecting that and preparing for it and I was happy when she brought it because I don’t want to win on no crap. I want to make sure when I’m competing against the best I’m competing against the best at their best."

What Raven Saunders and her Hulk face mask represent

Things may have been different had Saunders' second-round throw been legal. She was quick to point out that the COVID-delayed world championships are in a year, looking forward to a rematch.

In the meantime, she was reveling in her achievement and what it could mean for so many who identify with her.

"Everything that I’ve been through mental health-wise," Saunders said, "injuries, everything like that, financial, really being able to invest everything that I have mentally and physically. And be able to walk away with a medal and inspire so many people in the LGBTQ community, so many people who have been dealing with mental health issues, so many of the African-American community, so many people who are Black all around the world, I really hope that I can inspire and motivate."

Her Hulk face mask is a nod to her nickname but also her alter ego, which she developed out of necessity.

"Early on, similar to the Hulk, I had a tough time differentiating between the two; I had a tough time controlling when the Hulk came out or when the Hulk didn’t come out," she said. "But through my journey, especially dealing with mental health and things like that, I learned how to compartmentalize, the same way that Bruce Banner learned to control the Hulk, learned how to let the Hulk come out during the right moments and that way it also gave him a sign of mental peace.

"But when the Hulk came out, the Hulk was smashing everything that needed to be smashed."

Raven Saunders speaks out in support of Black women, LGBTQ people and those who suffer mental illness — all communities to which she belongs. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)
Raven Saunders speaks out in support of Black women, LGBTQ people and those who suffer mental illness — all communities to which she belongs. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

Saunders is another athlete at these Olympics who doesn't hide her mental health struggles. She was suicidal at one point and still has depressive episodes. She copes in part by picking up the phone to reach out to a friend for support.

One of those calls came a couple of months ago, to her close friend Gwen Berry, the American hammer thrower. They met when Berry was a volunteer coach at Ole Miss during Saunders' record-setting time as a Rebel.

Saunders had just learned of the labrum tear. Trials were in less than a month, and she needed a boost.

"It was nice to have somebody like her that I could reach out to," Saunders said.

That support goes both ways: Saunders said when she sees some of the comments aimed at Berry, an unapologetic athlete advocate, it makes her want to put on her Hulk mask for some smashing.

Saunders has bigger goals outside of track and field

Saunders believes her generation is more open about their sexuality, their mental health, and correcting the systems and structures that can uphold white supremacy around the world because they recognize the power they have.

"There are so many people all around the world who are fighting and don’t have the platform to speak up for themselves, that we have to represent," Saunders said, "and at the end of the day I feel that we’ve been doing a pretty solid job of trying to give light to those people."

She wants to become an advocate for making sure Black Americans not only have access to proper mental health services, but also realize it's OK to seek those services. For generations, Black people have often been told to pray when they try to open up about issues they may be having. But prayer can't solve mental illness.

"I remember a lot of times growing up we’d call it the 'crazy house' or 'Black people don’t do that' or things like that, and [I've talked] to a couple of my classmates now who are actually seeing therapists where a few years ago that wouldn’t be the case," Saunders said. "Being able to have people say that it’s OK to be strong and it’s OK to not be strong 100 percent of the time and it’s OK to need people... I feel like in our community a lot of times through history we haven’t had access or the resources to be able to do that.

"I want be able to help put some of those things in place for our people."

Before being ushered away for other responsibilities, Saunders stressed one major difference between her first trip to the Olympics, when she finished fifth in 2016 as a college student, and this one.

"I didn't have a chance to get a break," Saunders said. "Now, I'm about to relax.

"I don't know where, but I am going on va-ca-tion. You hear me?"

We sure do.

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