The story behind the Hulk: Olympic shot putter Raven Saunders’ battle with mental health leads to new meaning to medal

Updated: Jul. 26, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - When Raven Saunders steps into the shot put ring, there’s no messing around. She’s called the Hulk for a reason.

“You don’t mess with the Hulk,” the two-time Olympian said. “Because if you see the Hulk, you go the opposite way.”

Her persona was on display at the Track and Field Olympic Trials. Saunders threw her first personal best in four years. 19.96 meters. A second place finish good enough to qualify her for Team USA.

“It’s more motivation. As athletes we always look to be number one, we always look to be the best,” she said about placing second. “It’s nice to know I have it in the tank. The end goal is winning the Olympic gold medal. First goal was to make the team, which I got that done, now we have to do something with it.”

Saunders is big on self-motivation. You hear her hyping herself up when she’s practicing and competing. She said she’s “Reassuring myself that I can get it done. Telling myself you can’t take this moment or this one throw for granted just because you have 4-5 others in a training. Because this may be all that you have. One shot. One shot. Let’s go. Let’s get it.”

Tokyo 2020 is Saunders’ second trip to the Olympic Games. In Rio in 2016 she placed fifth in shot put, while on the Ole Miss track and field team. After three years as a Rebel she was a four-time NCAA Champion. three-time SEC Champion. And an Olympian.

On the outside she appeared to live a life full of titles and talent.

But on the inside, she felt empty.

“I was young, I was black and I was gay. Just moved to Mississippi,” Saunders explained. “There was a lot of stigma and things like that around certain stuff. I really felt like there was no outlet for me. Track was like an outlet, but it was only so much. Especially mentally when you’re going home and having to deal with it. It started weighing on me a lot that year.” Saunders tried to stay focused on track, but the following year, things got worse.

“I went from having a great 2016 to having, for me, and my standards, an OK 2017,” she explained. “So that offseason because of how I valued myself and how I attributed my self-worth was how I did on the track. I started questioning myself more than before. Over time, especially having dealt with that for so long and not having a name for it or addressing it, finding healthier outlets to work on that. It got to me. In that beginning of 2018 of what was my senior year. Yeah, I was ready to take my life.”

Saunders texted her therapist. It saved her life.

“I hadn’t talked to her in months because she had gotten a promotion she was no longer my therapist. Literally texting her because I thought she was the only one who understood me,” she said. “But yeah, in my mind, I was like whatever happens when I send this out is whatever happens. If she texts me back, cool. If not, it is what it is, I’m just going to go ahead. But thankfully, thankfully, she did.”

Saunders checked into a facility in Memphis that day in 2018. Three years later, she opened up about her struggles with mental health.

“I had seen similar stories, or certain things and I knew of other athletes struggling and I knew I couldn’t be the only one going through this,” she said.

Three years later, Saunders decided to share her story on social media, “I even shared a picture of the hospital band, of when I got admitted. Just showing people. I wanted to show people it’s real. There’s many of us dealing with this. And I wanted to be the one who said something and showed how close I was to possibly deter someone else from going down that route or letting someone know, hey, you’re not alone. Because there’s so many people who knew me who didn’t know the whole story of why I left school. Or so many people I knew were dealing with similar things that hit me up and said thank you, I’ve been dealing with the same thing. Those are the types of things that kind of got me through that vulnerability after sharing.” she said.

Tears came to Saunders’ eyes when she shared her story, “Because this is why I do this. Because there’s so many people who aren’t even athletes who are affected by it, more than we know. I remember seeing the tears on my mom’s face when she came and saw me after she found out what was going to happen and just the amount of love, and support, and things like that that. And my goal is just to save as many lives as possible.”

Saunders no longer values her worth based off of how far she throws, or how high she places. She knows she’s great. She knows she’s a champion. And she doesn’t need a medal to prove it.

“A medal to me, it really reflects nothing. Because I feel like with or without it, I’m good,” Saunders said. “For me it’s just going to be the icing on the cake. Everything I’ve done, it’s like OK, it paid off, but I’ve learned to not measure my worth and myself value on materialistic things. But a medal for other people that look up to me will see oh my god it’s the grand finale to a great story, which on that side would be nice, I mean, I’m not saying I don’t want a medal, because I do want a medal. But yeah, it’s one of those.”

The Women’s Shot Put competition begins at 5:25 AM Memphis-time on Friday, July 30th.

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