Olympian Raven Saunders Gets Candid About Mental Health, Racism, And Queerness

“With the world just being more open and eyes-open-ears-open, I just feel like the more I speak, I may get through to one to two or three more people.”

If the world was operating as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, we’d be a few days into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Except, the world has turned completely upside down, and so too have the Summer games, which were postponed for 2021. And while the delay was for the safety of players, coaches, camera crews, and everyone else involved, it’s caused some major issues for Olympic athletes who are now stuck without the resources to correctly train for next year’s competition — if they’re still even eligible to compete at all.

One athlete who’s taking the quarantine in strides, counting her blessings rather than her setbacks, is shot putter Raven Saunders — aka “Hulk.” Having almost a decade of sports experience under her belt is a major factor of that flexible attitude, and it’s a good thing, too, considering the range of situations she’s faced since beginning her sports career.

It’s not just setbacks that Saunders has dealt with; in fact, it’s mostly success. She’s been highly lauded for her shot put abilities, even having Charleston, SC — her hometown — name Aug. 17th as “Raven Saunders Day.” Along with the holiday came a parade that started at Saunders’ former high school and proceeded down the city’s main street, where hometown fans showed up to cheer on the athlete after her stint at the 2016 Olympics.

However, Saunders wasn’t originally interested in shot put. At the beginning of her freshman year of high school, she was focused on basketball. While her love of hooping started in middle school, she quickly found that her stature — with her height of 5-foot-5 — meant that she was playing with a deficit that many basketball players don’t. Despite the obstacle, though, Saunders continued shooting hoops through her freshman year of college. “I could’ve sworn I’d be the next Shaq,” she says.

While certainly destined for greatness, Saunders ended up finding that direction from a different sport: shot put. After her basketball coach encouraged her to join the track and field team to improve her footwork, Saunders’ focus switched to throwing. That passion was greatly bolstered by new coach Herbert Johnson; the two formed such a strong bond that the high school athlete began referring to him as “dad” and still does to this day. Under Johnson’s leadership, Saunders won the state championship freshman year — and every year of high school after that.

Photo courtesy of Raven Saunders’ Instagram (@giveme1shot__)

And while Saunders was achieving athletic success, she was also embracing a major part of her personal life. When she officially came out her freshman year, Saunders was still figuring out who she was, and shot put gave her a sense of purpose. “In those early days of high school — for everybody — [you’re looking for] what fits for you and what’s right for you,” Saunders tells GO. “So, for me, it was nice to find something that I was extremely good at, and naturally talented at, and something I could really put my all into.”

When it came time to transition to college, Saunders knew she wanted to keep with shot put. She applied and attended Southern Illinois University, where she racked up a number of titles at competitions including the Missouri Valley Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships, NCAA Indoor Championships, Missouri Valley Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships, and NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2015. But after her coach ended up getting transferred to the University of Mississippi, Saunders followed, dutiful as ever to her coach and her passion for the sport. The transition from SIU to Ole Miss was initially exciting for the athlete, but Saunders soon realized that the collegiate community she was entering was not waiting to welcome her with open arms. “In the beginning, I was super excited — super pumped,” says Saunders. “I had been recruited by all the top schools in the nation, including Ole Miss. … I was really excited, and it wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t at all what I expected.”

People kept telling her that she had nothing to worry about as an openly queer Black woman going to school in Mississippi, but she says it got to the point that she could no longer pretend that was true. Saunders not only began seeing open acts of racism from the greater community — like the Ku Klux Klan holding a rally on campus not far from a statue of James Meredith, the first African-American to go to Ole Miss — but also “outright disrespectful” and “blatantly racist” remarks from classmates on social media. “It was just a lot of very subtle things that, as I started to learn, it just really made me very uncomfortable, and it would constantly play in my head,” she says. “The times where I would try to speak out or say some things or whatever the case may be, it was like I was almost silenced in a way.”

She did speak out, though, because her experiences hadn’t started when she got to Ole Miss; they had happened before. And though her coaches told her to take multiple statements off social media for one reason or another, Saunders refused to back down. “I had always [spoken out], but in this moment, especially in this point in history, I feel like it’s my duty and my obligation to say something because I’ve always been very passionate about it,” she says. “With the world just being more open and eyes-open-ears-open, I just feel like the more I speak, I may get through to one to two or three more people.”

Saunders was trying to process the new situation she found herself in while dealing with schoolwork, day-to-day mental wellness, and an intense training schedule. The college athlete, who already had a number of titles under her belt by the time she got to Ole Miss, showed no signs of slowing down in her new environment. In 2016, Saunders competed and placed in the Southeastern Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships, NCAA Indoor Championships, Southeastern Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships, and the NCAA Outdoor Championships. But Saunders did more than just compete; she made her mark, achieving a record-breaking throw at the NCAA Outdoor Championships with a distance of 19.33 meters.

Aside from her regional wins, Saunders stepped up to compete in the 2016 United States Olympic Trials, where she successfully made the team. Once again, the young athlete proved that she was a force to be reckoned with by coming in second with a throw of 19.24 meters — beat out only by World medalist Michelle Carter. The experience of going to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was tougher than expected, though, as Saunders had to focus on schoolwork at the same time as shot put. But she was able to handle the two, earning herself fifth place overall with a throw of 19.35 meters — her personal best.

While she was cinching wins at national and international competitions, though, Saunders was also juggling her mental health. She had school work, practices and official meets, and was dealing with injuries that set her back. In January of 2018, it all became too much. Saunders set out for campus in her car, but instead of pulling into the parking lot, she drove straight past it with a number of dark thoughts swirling in her head. Knowing she was in a dark place and “10 or 15 minutes” from trying to end her life, Saunders texted a therapist from Ole Miss for help. With the help of professionals from her school, the athlete checked into a mental health facility, and a month later, she decided to leave Ole Miss.

Photo courtesy of Raven Saunders.

The scare allowed Saunders to slow down and breathe, taking a moment for herself — not the Olympic athlete, but the person. She took that time but kept tuned into the world of mental health, and after recovering from hip surgery, Saunders decided to use her platform to speak up about her own experiences. “I was hearing stories of a football player who was about to go off to school but ended up committing suicide because of stresses,” Saunders tells GO. “A burden for him became too much, and being at a place [where] I’ve been in that position a couple of times over, I just felt that it’d be important for someone like me to say, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through.’”

Now, Saunders is teaming up with Well Beings, an organization that works to educate about and destigmatize mental health by offering resources, digital content, and events. She’s part of “Out of the Dark,” a currently-in-development series that will further the organization’s mission to push to destigmatize mental health conditions through the true stories of those who have been touched and changed by such challenges. One of those episodes will feature Saunders talking about the struggles she’s faced and how she worked to manage them. “When Well Beings reached out to me, I felt very honored to be a part of that journey,” says Saunders. “I was really thankful that they would allow for me to share my story.”

It’s not only her mental health that Saunders has been outspoken about. As a Black, openly lesbian athlete, she felt that her queer identity made her opportunities feel offbeat. “When it comes to that whole period, I was like, ‘I got to put up this face. I have to be this person,’” Saunders tells GO. “It was definitely different.” In one instance, after being named Gatorade National Player of the Year in high school, she felt compelled to wear gender-neutral clothing for the promotional video shoot — clothing Saunders says she wouldn’t normally wear. “I was trying to fit myself into that mold so that people wouldn’t necessarily say anything,” she says.

Although the athlete has had to grapple with her own identity and how it affects her career, it’s never been something she’s been ashamed of or wanted to ignore. When she’s competing, she says, it doesn’t come into play; it’s all about how good of an athlete you are, not who you are as a person. “I can be me; I can be 100 percent me,” Saunders says. “People can say whatever they want to say, but I don’t care because this is how I do this.” And the sport continues to nurture Saunders’ queerness, allowing her to connect deeply to both the lesbian and shot putter part of her identities and extend that feeling into her day to day life. “I feel like through the sport, it’s allowed me — on the outside of sport — to really start to show the world who I really am.”

Though Saunders has been through a lot already in her 23 years of life, she remains committed to teaching others the lessons she’s learned through her struggles and triumphs. She hopes that if she can pass anything on — aside from a love of sport — it’s that being yourself is the best way to be, and taking care of yourself — physically and mentally — is extremely important. And for queer athletes who are hoping to become a sports great like Saunders already has, the key is to accept yourself 100 percent so you can, in turn, give your passion 100 percent.

“The one thing, especially that my mental health journey has taught me and being a part of this Well Beings campaign has taught me, is that you have to find and be comfortable enough within to not let the outside world come inside and try and steal that from you — steal that joy, steal that happiness,” says Saunders. “Being gay especially means happy, and that’s one thing I have started to really take pride in.”

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