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At the Tokyo Olympics, shot-putter Raven Saunders wore a Hulk mask and her hair colored purple and green. She danced. She joked around. She also won a silver medal. Her experience in Tokyo marked a turning point, she says: “It was finally a time where I felt comfortable being myself, being open to myself, and really getting a chance to show the world who I was as a person.”
Saunders also competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but that experience was different. There, “I was trying to soak up as much information as possible” and learn from teammates, she says. “Seeing how they handled themselves and how comfortable they were being themselves . . . gave me that confidence.”
On the podium at Tokyo, after Saunders received her medal and the ceremony ended, she raised her arms above her head in an X. She said later that the X represents “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
“I feel like, in society, a lot of people who deal with things or who are overlooked—they constantly feel disregarded. And for me, being a person who is Black and gay, and also who struggles with mental health, I feel like—especially these past couple of years, especially in America, but even more so all around the world—they’ve been very big topics of discussion,” she says.
She wanted people to know that even if they feel overlooked, they can still do great things. “Growing up, there weren’t too many people that I saw that looked like me or represented so many different things that I felt like I connected to,” she says. “That X was for anyone who can relate, or anyone who supports anyone who relates or anyone who has a family member that can relate, because at the end of the day, a lot of us really just need support in our corners.”
The International Olympic Committee launched an investigation into whether Saunders had violated its rules against demonstration, but it suspended the investigation. “For me, I always said, when I got to a position of being able to use my platform for something good, there was nothing or no one that was going to stand in my way of doing that.”
Saunders has talked openly about her struggles with mental health, including coming close to suicide in 2018. Since then, she has been more in tune with herself, including “being more honest with myself, really trying to understand myself more and being more compassionate with myself,” she says. Checking in with her therapist, meditating, and doing yoga have also helped maintain her mental health, she says.
Saunders changed the way she approaches getting through rough spots. She sees life as a cycle that often involves a challenge coming before a success. “A challenge before every breakthrough—that’s how life always has happened for me,” she says. “You have to keep pushing, and if you keep pushing, the success is going to come. But it was during that time, where I almost gave up in the midst of it, where I really learned that.”
While many Olympic medalists keep their medals locked away somewhere, Saunders typically carries hers around with her. That way, if she meets someone and gets to talking with them, she can let them see it and touch it. “I do it because you never know who your story can inspire,” she says.
Conversations matter to Saunders, among strangers and among friends. You may not know what your friends are going through unless you take the time to try to understand one another, she says. She remembers what it felt like to be outed as a kid, and now she leans on friends who support her. For example, she says, “I have friends who will stand up for me when people misgender me.”
In 2022, Saunders is looking forward to competing at the first World Athletics Championships to be held on U.S. soil, as well as to getting into motivational speaking. “I really just try to spread a message of love and support and letting people be themselves,” she says. “You don’t have to completely understand it. You don’t have to completely love it. But just let them be them. Have some regard for one another.”
This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.