Raven Saunders: Olympic shot putter on the pandemic, mental health, and taking a stand in Tokyo

Raven Saunders placed an X symbol at the podium after she won Olympic shot put silver.
Raven Saunders, a Tokyo Olympic silver medal holder, wanted to make an impact.

She was clear about who she wanted to stand up for and had discussed it with her closest friends - but not sure how. She had to think fast.

The shot putter, 25, says that it was at the moment she decided to do so.

"We had discussed what our demonstration would be and it felt perfect."

Saunders crossed her arms over her head and created an X symbol that was widely recognized around the globe.

She says, "It's where all oppressed groups meet."

"Being a lesbian black woman and dealing with mental health, as well as knowing so many people with disabilities, it felt natural for me.

"I have always advocated for those whose voices were not heard. Growing up, I would have felt much more at home if I had seen someone like me.

"I had built up a reputation of being mentally tough."

Saunders competed at Tokyo 2020 in unique face masks - she appeared for her final with a design inspired by The Hulk

One quick glance at Saunders’ TikTok shows that she loves to have fun. She has 150,000 followers and growing.

Saunders states, "When I was in Olympic village I wanted to live the life of it."

"If you ask any person from almost any country about the crazy girl who had a split hair and the speaker who walked around the entire village dancing to the beat of the music, they will tell you.

"In the restaurant, in weight room, on the street, and on the bus. I was trying to get everyone involved. It was great fun and I am now like, "This is why I'm here!"

Saunders posts on mental health are just as prominent. But it wasn't easy to get to the point where she was ready to share her struggles.

The shot-putter admitted that her sporting success made it more difficult.

She said, "I was giving so many of myself because it felt like I owed something to everyone around me, to my coaches, to my team-mates and to my parents. However, I was unable to see what I owed myself and lost my self-control.

"Before opening up, I struggled with myself. I felt ashamed and scared by the inexplicable nature of other people's opinions.

"I had built such a persona that I was so strong and mentally tough that I can handle and handle everything.

"That is who I believed I was, and how I presented myself to the world. Then I went from feeling like that to feeling like "Well, I have problems" - I felt so vulnerable over the next two or three days.

"I nearly fell back, but hearing the words of encouragement from others and their ability to relate to it made me feel very grateful and blessed."

"I return the next day and the entire school knows."

Saunders is open to sharing her sexuality and the trauma she went through when she had to reveal it to her classmates at Charleston's lower school.

She recalled, "I reached fifth grade and had the greatest crush on this girl."

"I rewrote the Justin Timberlake song about her, and added her name to it. After that, I was forced to leave early for my dentist appointment. My best friend told me: "Hey, look at my journal. I won't allow anyone to come in my office.

"I return the next day and the entire school knows.

"I had to deal with it for the remainder of the school year. Then, when I went to middle school [for children 11-13 years old], I was re-outed once more. That's when people began treating me strangely there.

"It was a crazy, traumatizing experience, but nothing compared with what some people go through in the community."

"I felt that my message had the chance to connect"

Saunders took silver in the shot-put at Tokyo 2020

Saunders has now some time to recover from an injury after her post-Olympics surgery.

She has been able make more of the videos on social media that have attracted a lot of attention during Tokyo 2020. This includes her advice about the food to avoid at the Games' athletes' dining hall and her first attempt at using a bidet.

She laughs, "I've been TikToking."

"I like things that can be related to because they're the type of thing that I make. I love funny things. It's so funny!

The loneliness that the American felt when she was dealing with her mental and sexual health means there is also a lot to be thankful for in helping others who may be experiencing similar struggles.

Saunders feels that athletes must show that they are OK to be different in this age of Covid.

She says, "After a global pandemic everyone's mental well-being is totally messed up."

"I don’t care if your skin color is green, purple, Hispanic or Latina. Everyone has had to deal with something.

"So, I felt that my message had the potential to connect with so many people and it was something that had to be said."

Raven Saunders spoke to BBC's LGBT Sport podcast. BBC Sounds broadcasts new episodes on Wednesdays.