Raven Saunders competes in the Women's Shot Put Final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Saunders threw 19.79 (64-feet, 11 inches), just off her personal best of 19.96 (65-5 ¾) from the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field in June, to place second behind Lijiao Gong of China, who threw a personal best 20.58 meters (67-6). Gong finally reached the Olympic pinnacle after winning the bronze medal in 2008, the silver in 2012 and placing fourth in 2016.
Valerie Adams of New Zealand took the bronze (19.62 meters) for her fourth Olympic medal. She won gold in 2008 and 2012 and silver in 2016 and has since given birth to two children.
“Everything that I’ve been through mental-health wise, injuries, financial,” Saunders said, paid off at Olympic Stadium on Sunday morning as she was able to relay her philosophy of “Keep fighting, keep pushing, find value in yourself.”
As another famous character once sang, “It’s not easy being green.”
Five years ago in Rio, Saunders was fifth while teammate Michelle Carter took the first U.S. gold in the event.
“I remember watching her in that moment,” Saunders said, “and being like, ‘I’m going to make sure that person is me.’”
She was only 21 years old at the time and was caught up in what she called a “whirlwind” when she went back to school at the University of Mississippi. Saunders was tormented by depression and anxiety and contemplated taking her life in 2018. A call to a former therapist brought her back from the brink, and she found help.
Through therapy and support from a strong network of friends and family, Saunders has learned to harness the Hulk within her. She differentiated the fun-loving Raven from the Hulk that “was smashing everything that needed to be smashed.”
Yet Saunders’ Olympic dreams were almost pulverized by a torn right labrum earlier this season.
She sought support from hammer thrower Gwen Berry when she was going through a depressive episode after finding out about the tear in her hip less than a month before the Olympic Trials.
“It was nice to have somebody like her that I could reach out to,” Saunders said. “My right labrum is torn worse than I tore my left one in 2019, and then I tweaked my Achilles in the prelim, but hey whatever. We got a medal.”
What could she have done if her hip were healthy? “I’m still 25, so I’ve got a long career of me,” Saunders said. “The year where I do get healthy, hey, watch out! Watch out!”
At the Trials, Saunders was second to Jessica Ramsey, who threw a personal best of 20.12 meters. Unfortunately, Ramsey was dealing with an injury at the Olympics and posted no mark in the 12-woman final after three fouls.
In between throws, Saunders stalked around, giving herself positive reinforcement. She postured at the metal ball, which she placed on the ground by the ring, wagged her finger, and even strode a few feet onto the grass before throwing the towel off her head and getting ready to throw.
“I like to be my biggest supporter,” Saunders said of her personal pep talks. “Y’all would have to bleep out most of the things I say. I’m telling myself, ‘You got it, you got it, you’re a champion, you gotta push, nobody’s going to give it to you, you have to work, you gotta grind, you’ve got to get it.’”
And she did. As Saunders walked up to meet the media in the mixed zone, she was singing, “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang.
Saunders said she invested everything that she had mentally and physically. It was important not only to “be able to walk away with a medal,” she said, but also to “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. I really just hope that I can continue to inspire and motivate.”
The 25-year-old from Charleston, South Carolina, was the first thrower in the competition and put out a solid effort of 19.65. Gong answered with 19.95.
Saunders fouled on a prodigious second attempt that looked like a 20-meter throw. She stepped over the top of the ring with one foot, and later scowled when talking about it.
“I just didn’t finish working my hips around,” Saunders said. “I got excited and I watched it because I knew as soon as it left my hand, ‘Aww, that’s going to be the one.’ I was hoping I would get another one.”
But she said she was glad to see Gong, whom she had beaten in a previous competition, throw as far as she did.
“I like to say, “ I don’t want anything easy.’” Saunders said. “Because I know that in life it’s going to be a dogfight.
“I was kind of expecting that and preparing for it, and I was happy when she brought it.”
Saunders threw 19.62 on her next attempt, then 19.49 and improved to 19.79 on her fifth throw.
The formidable Adams, who was made a Dame for her accomplishments, was behind her in the rankings, and once Saunders saw her literally over her shoulder. Adams stands almost 6-foot-4, while Saunders is not quite 5-5.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’m a midget, I’m really a midget out there,’” Saunders said.
But she can throw far. “Hey,” Saunders said, “it’s condensed power.”
Her final throw was a foul, but she knew she was on the podium. Saunders danced, jogged to the stands to get a U.S. flag, and struck some model poses.
Unlike the other competitors, Saunders’ legs were mostly bare. “I blame the buns on Twitter,” she said, “because I was joking around and I said, ‘I’m going to wear the sprinter panties, add a little razzle-dazzle,’ and then 800 and something people liked it, so I was like, ‘Dang, now I gotta wear it.’”
But that’s just so Raven. She attributes her different looks to “my unapologeticness of it all.”
“My hair, I wear grills, my biggest thing is just always being me,” Saunders said. “People told me not to do tattoos and piercings, but now look at me - I’m popular.”
She said it would have meant so much to have seen someone who looked like her when she was growing up. Even now she is inspired and motivated by current athletes.
“I talk about why representation matters,” Saunders said. “Being able to see that, it would give me more of a push. I remember looking back and remembering watching Venus and Serena (Williams) playing tennis - young black girls, beads in their hair, unapologetic. That inspired me to be myself.”