Mask-wearing shot put standout Raven Saunders earns spot to Paris Olympics with 2nd place finish

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Raven Saunders wore a gold nose ring and had gold grills covering their upper and lower teeth. They even painted their nails gold for the occasion.

Sensing a theme?

Saunders, the shot put standout who wears a mask at competitions and identifies with the pronouns they/them, is chasing an Olympic gold medal at the Paris Games after earning silver in Tokyo. Saunders took a step toward that goal by finishing second at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials Saturday night to earn a place on the team.

Not that they ever doubted it. Not after injuries. Not after dealing with mental-health hurdles. Not after serving a suspension. Not ever.

To celebrate, Saunders, whose alter ego is “ The Hulk, ” plans to smoke a cigar they brought in their backpack just for this occasion.

“I am and constantly sitting myself down and looking in that mirror and reminding myself, ‘You’re Raven, The Hulk. You will achieve it,’” said Saunders, who wore purple hair instead of their trademark green since sprinter Kyree King went with that color. “There’s nothing in this world that will stop you from being great, except for yourself. So that’s really been my mantra this season.”

Saunders had a big opening attempt Saturday only to see two-time world champion Chase Jackson overtake the mark with a throw of 20.10 meters. Saunders couldn't top it — although they did reach a season-best distance of 19.90 meters.

“Words really can’t describe the fact of me even being here in this moment, me being able to come out and compete and throw as far as I did with everything I’ve been through,” Saunders said. “It’s a blessing that I’m even here right now. So to be able to make my third team after stating that I wanted to and after quitting the sport five or six different times this year — of doubting myself and fighting and battling myself, and having people drop out of the race with me, I mean, it’s amazing I'm here right now.”

Saunders might be best known for what happened after they picked up their silver medal in Tokyo. They stepped off the podium and into some controversy by forming an “X” with their wrists. Saunders explained the “X” stood for “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”

Just before leaving Tokyo, Saunders learned of their mom's death. Their mom was attending a Team USA hospitality event in Florida — and watched Saunders win the Olympic medal — when she passed. Saunders posted on social media: “My mama was a great woman and will forever live through me. My number one guardian angel.”

Already an emotional time, Saunders underwent hip surgery a few months later.

“If I were smart I should have took that 2022 year off, especially after everything that happened,” Saunders said. “I really wasn’t in the best mental state to be able to compete and I was battling with myself most of the year.”

Saunders was later hit with an 18-month suspension by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for failing to show up for doping tests. It was dated to August 15, 2022, which meant Saunders missed last summer's world championships in Hungary, but was back in time to get ready for Paris.

They used the time away from the sport to reflect and dive deeper into training.

“I really became at peace with it and I just really took it as more time to be able to get to grind,” said Saunders, who doesn’t have a coach. “More time to just focus on making this Olympic team, more time to focus on myself and on my mental health. So it actually proved to be a benefit to myself.”

Saunders has been vocal about struggling with mental-health issues, but said they're in a good place now with, “lots and lots and lots of therapy.”

One of Saunders' trademarks in a competition is donning a mask. Sometimes, it's in the theme of the “Hulk.” On Saturday, it was a “Day of the Dead” sort of motif.

“It’s a way to show people that I’m back — back like I never left,” Saunders explained. “People didn't think I could come back to this moment.

“This is what my whole career has been about — it's about being doubted and still being able to come out and perform and ... to showcase who I am. I’m a champion. I’m a winner. I’m one of the best athletes in the world no matter what has happened, no matter what tries to stop me, no matter what tries to get in my way.”


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