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Raven Saunders: Olympic shot putter on pandemic, mental health and position in Tokyo

Raven Saunders made an X symbol on the podium after winning Olympic silver in the shot put on August 1st

Standing on the podium in Tokyo with an Olympic silver medal around his neck, Raven Saunders wanted to make a strong statement.

She knew who she wanted to stand up for and discussed with those closest to her – but she wasn’t sure how. So she had to think quickly.

“It was the moment I made my decision,” says the 25-year-old BBC Sport from her home in the US.

“We had already talked about what our demonstration should be and I felt it was a perfect fit.”

Saunders crossed his arms over his head and created an X symbol that could be seen all over the world.

“It’s the intersection where all oppressed communities meet,” she says.

“As a black, lesbian woman who deals with mental health and knows so many people with disabilities, it just felt right to me.

“I was always someone who stood up for those whose voices weren’t heard.

“I had built up a mental strength”

Raven SaundersSaunders competed in Tokyo 2020 with distinctive face masks – and performed for their finale with a design based on The Hulk

A quick look at Saunders’ TikTok – with 150,000 followers and growing – shows that she loves having fun.

“When I was in the Olympic Village, I wanted life to be there,” Saunders says.

“If you ask anyone from almost any country, they’ll tell you about the crazy girl with the split hair and the loudspeaker who ran all over the village just dancing and rumbling music.

“In the cafeteria, in the weight room, on the street, on the bus – I just tried to include everyone. It was so much fun and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m here for!’ “

Equally prominent are Saunders’ posts on mental health – but getting to a point where she was ready to open up about her struggles wasn’t easy.

And the shot putter admits that her athletic success made things difficult.

She says: “I gave so much of myself because I felt I owed it to everyone around me – my coaches, my teammates, my parents. But I got lost in it and stopped thinking about what I owe myself. “

“Before I opened up, I fought myself. I felt ashamed and scared, the ignorance of what people think or not.

“I had built up such a personality that was so strong and mentally strong that I can endure and process everything and nothing affects me.

“This is how I perceived myself and how I faced the world. So I went like, ‘Well, I have these problems’ – I felt so vulnerable for two or three days.

“I almost slipped back, but just hearing people’s words of encouragement and how they could relate to them … I am very grateful and blessed to have had that kind of reaction.”

“I’ll be back the next day and the whole school knows”

Saunders’ willingness to be open also extends to talking about her sexuality and the traumatic way she was forced to come out to her classmates when she was in junior high school in Charleston, South Carolina .

“I was in fifth grade and had the most crush on this girl,” she recalls.

“I rewrote this Justin Timberlake song about her and put her name on it. Then I had to go home early for a dentist appointment and I said to my best friend, ‘Hey, take care of my diary. Don’t let anyone go to my desk.’

“I’ll be back the next day and the whole school will know.

“I had to live with it for the rest of the school year – and then when I got into middle school [for children aged 11 to 13], I’m being outed again, and that’s when people started treating me weird.

“It was a crazy, traumatic experience, but nothing compared to what some people in the community are going through.”

“I felt that my message really had a chance to make a connection”

Raven SaundersSaunders won silver in the 2020 Tokyo shot put

After an injury surgery after the Olympics, Saunders now has some time.

As a result, she was able to do more of the social media videos that drew a lot of attention during Tokyo 2020 – such as her advice about food to avoid in the athletes’ dining room at the Games and her baffled first experiences with with a bidet.

“I was TikToking,” she laughs.

“I like things that are relatable because I do things like that. So, everything that is funny, I say, ‘Okay, I like what you did there. That’s hilarious!'”

But the loneliness the American experienced in dealing with her mental health and sexuality means that there is also content to help people who may have difficulties in their own lives.

And in an era of Covid, it’s even more important for Saunders that athletes show that it’s okay not to be okay.

“Everyone’s mental health is in turmoil after a global pandemic,” she says.

“I don’t care if you’re green, black, purple, Asian, Hispanic or Latina – everyone has had something to do with them.

“So I felt like my message really had a chance to connect with so many different people and it was something that needed to be said.”

Raven Saunders spoke to the BBC’s LGBT Sports Podcast. You can hear new episodes every Wednesday on BBC Sounds.

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