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Raven Saunders, her mom’s memory at heart, takes on challenge at USATF Outdoor Champs

Raven Saunders

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: Raven Saunders of Team United States reacts after winning the silver medal in the Women’s Shot Put Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Raven Saunders often carries her Olympic shot put silver medal with her. She always wears a locket containing her mother’s ashes.

Saunders is one of many Americans competing this week in their first championship meet since the Tokyo Games. A top-three finish at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, will qualify her for July’s world championships, also in Eugene, the first to be held in the U.S.

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Saunders was one of the breakout stars in Tokyo. She garnered attention not just for becoming the third U.S. woman to win an Olympic shot put medal, but also for her character. Her green and purple hair, her biceps flexing and that green mask fitting her nickname, “Hulk.”

On the medal podium, she crossed her arms above her head to form an “X,” which she said was “to try and bring the world together for all people who have felt left behind, for all people who have wanted to be loved but have been loved less.”

“Gave EVERYTHING for this. If you are BLACK, LGBTQIA+, Or mentally Struggling. This one is for you,” she shared on Instagram.

Saunders told that she first came out to her mom in third grade and by ninth grade was comfortable with who she was. After her Olympic debut in 2016, she struggled with mental health and contemplated suicide.

Last year, few people knew that Saunders tore her right hip early in the season. Even fewer knew she tweaked her Achilles walking into the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo before competing and then winning the silver medal.

Afterward, her mom, Clarissa, told her, “You have a few things in you that I wish that I had in me.” They talked about the house and the food truck that were in their future.

Two days after the final, Saunders received a phone call from the U.S. Clarissa suffered a seizure and was en route to a hospital, a doctor told her. Later, Saunders’ uncle called and told her that Clarissa had passed.

“At that point, I lost it,” Saunders said on the On Her Turf podcast last year. “I think I threw my phone. Literally Hulk smash pummeled the walls. It was just so much built up for me in that moment. It was like, how? Especially because we didn’t have our families there [in Tokyo], and then to lose the No. 1 person that really made a lot of this worthwhile, it hurt.

“Talking about it makes it a lot easier, and it also helps remind me of memories.”

Since returning home from Japan, Saunders moved to Orlando. She had a second hip surgery in the fall (and returned to throwing one week later). She goes through airports and gets stares and the question, “Are you .... ?”

“It’s been a nice, nice change,” she said earlier this month. “It’s definitely taken some getting used to because, at first, I’ll be like, why are you staring at me? After a while, now that I’ve put my energy out there, people kind of see that I’m a real person. It helps.”

The toughest part of the last year has been experiencing it all without her mom. They helped each other through difficult times. She said that, at age 12, she protected Clarissa from a boyfriend who was high on drugs.

Clarissa was a guardian angel, Saunders said. Clarissa regularly called to make sure Saunders took her anxiety and depression medication.

“The greatest thing that I’ve had to overcome was trying to stand on my own and navigate this new space,” she said, adding that continuing therapy sessions and spending time in nature has also helped.

Saunders competes Sunday at the site of career highlights. She qualified for both of her Olympics in Eugene. In 2014, she made her international debut at the world junior championships at Hayward Field and earned a silver medal.

She also competes during Pride Month, which has significance as well.

“It’s kind of funny how, these past few years, [Pride Month] has transitioned to actually being a thing where [before] it was something that was more so celebrated within the community,” Saunders said. “Having people and family members tell you, ‘Happy Pride Month,’ especially for so long feeling that we were invisible or shunned and things like that, it really starts to help the whole self-appreciation and knowing that you’re loved and knowing that people actually truly do care around you.”

Though Saunders was the world’s second-best thrower last year, she ranks sixth among Americans so far in 2022. There are three Americans in the world’s top eight, plus No. 9 Maggie Ewen, who has a bye into worlds as the reigning Diamond League season champion, giving the U.S. four spots at worlds.

Last year, Saunders entered Olympic Trials ranked 10th in the nation for the year. Then she threw a personal best at trials, also in Eugene, to qualify for her second Olympics.

The reason that Saunders carries her Olympic silver medal with her is so that anybody who recognizes her gets a chance to see it. At the same time, it’s a source of motivation as she gazes at it.

“I’ve got to work harder,” she said. “I’ve got to get gold. I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to throw farther.”

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