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Raven Saunders and I recorded this while she was in attendance at the Prefontaine Classic and popped by The Magic Boost tent. We traded a couple of messages over Twitter about how we wanted to make this interview happen for a while because she’s one of the funniest personalities in the sport and the throws deserve more love. The last time people may have seen her on TV was twerking shortly after winning a silver medal in the shot put at the Tokyo Olympics. You could have also seen her on the news since she raised her arms in an X to protest racial and social injustice in America. Just a few days later, her mother, Clarissa, passed away. Raven decided to take a short break from social media. In this episode, we touch on it all as well as where she sees the conversation around athlete mental health going from here since she’s been very outspoken about her own past struggles.
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I’ve transcribed a few parts of the interview below, which has been edited lightly for clarity.
CHRIS CHAVEZ: Raven Saunders.
RAVEN SAUNDERS: Yeahhhh…
CHAVEZ: Olympic silver medalist.
SAUNDERS: That’s me.
CHAVEZ: How’s it feel? You have that title for life.
SAUNDERS: I mean, it’s all right. You know, when you aspire to do great things and you get something out of it, there’s still more on the horizon…But silver is good. It’s good for now.
CHAVEZ: You win a silver medal at the Olympics. This time there are no spectators. We saw you twerking on the NBC broadcast. First off, they cut away from it way too quickly. So what happened next? I guess you walk off the track, you go to the village. How is the celebration there?
SAUNDERS: The celebration was nice. I got lots of sleep. I got lots of water because I was dehydrated. I got my regular grilled chicken with my French fries with a little barbecue sauce on top. I had my Old Bay seasoning from back at home so I sprinkled that on there.
CHAVEZ: You packed that yourself?
SAUNDERS: I had to. I had to do it. It was for everybody back at home. I just had a nice little meal.
CHAVEZ: You made a lot of headlines at the medal ceremony. You decided to raise your arms up in an X as a form of protest. Behind the scenes, how did that come together and what were the conversations that took place for that to happen?
SAUNDERS: So all of the athletes kind of determined that our sign would be, an X inside of a circle, pretty much representing the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet. People with disabilities. People of different races. It was just a lot. You saw some athletes actually drew it on themselves or on their uniforms at some point during the competition. And for me, I actually did draw it on my arm during the competition. And it was really at that moment, I feel like while I had the world’s attention, it was time to make a statement. It wasn’t necessarily a protest. It was just really making a statement. I feel like the Olympics, especially with their goal being unity. The Olympics at that moment is the perfect time to try and bring as many people together as we can. Because in the village, especially, when you’re meeting everyone and you’re dancing with everyone and you’re talking, ‘Hey, what sport are you? What country are you from? What’s it like there?’ It really bridges a lot of gaps around the world for us.
CHAVEZ: Was there any moment where they like pulled you aside to room and gave you a talking to like, ‘Hey, these are the IOC rules…’ But actually, no one was going to take that medal from you.
SAUNDERS: If you watch my TikTok or if you were on my Twitter, you could see they weren’t going to get that medal. But no. Initially like especially USATF and the USOPC, I’m very thankful for them because they were behind me as soon as everything happened. They told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Based on what we’ve decided and our rules, you haven’t broken any.’ So they told me that whatever happens, they’re going to be behind me. And that was the thing that really gave me a lot of peace and solace.
CHAVEZ: When you do something like that, you tend to piss off a ton of people on Twitter. All their icons tend to look the same. They have the same politics. How bad did it get?
SAUNDERS: I really didn’t pay attention to it. Like I did and I didn’t. Initially, I did because I find stuff like that funny. I know who I am. I know what I did. I know what it stood for. So you can’t sit here and try to tell me that it meant something else. So I made fun of some of the people at first. After a while, I just let a lot of my followers handle them. They’ll get them for me. I don’t even have to worry. Let me keep my peace.
CHAVEZ: It’s crazy because Gwen Berry constantly gets this. Any tweet she puts out, gets like ten of those responses. Did she give you any sort of advice or did she message you at all about like, ‘Hey, just don’t pay them any attention at all.’
SAUNDERS: We talk about that stuff all the time. I would tell her I’d delete and block all the time and she’s like, ‘It’s no point. They’re just going to keep creating pages and coming back. I don’t even stress it out and worry about it.’ We’ve already had those conversations. It was one of those things that before I did it, I already knew that that would be some kind of response. Because as soon as anybody would turn it and try and claim that I did a protest, I knew that…for whatever reason, the country that’s the most prideful on freedom of speech and being able to speak up for what you believe in, there’s a lot of people here that get so hyped up over people protesting. I feel like it’s the most American thing that you can do. Even though what I did was a statement.
CHAVEZ: A couple of days later, tragedy strikes with your family. Your mom passes away. How hard was that? To get the word while you were gone. Was it a total shock?
SAUNDERS: It was. It’s so funny to me how life works. I would always, especially after overcoming a lot of my mental health challenges and things like that and that I’m still dealing with, I would always say: I’m ready for whatever life wants to throw at me next. I knew that when you accomplish things, sometimes life’s going to hit. I was like, ‘I’m prepared.’ Even during the competition, I was saying, ‘I don’t want I don’t want anything in life easy.’ Life and God set me up at such a high to kind of prepare me for that moment. Because had I not worked on my mental health and had I not been already seeing a therapist or planning on seeing a therapist, had not been meditating, had I not been doing all of those things like calling my people and reaching out to my people, sitting on the phone with my mom every other day or every day that I’m out there, I wouldn’t have had that peace to be able to keep moving on.
Initially, when I found out I broke down. I honestly went Hulk mode on a wall in the village. My room wall was torn out with a steel beam. It’s got a couple of dents in it. I went crazy. I’m not gonna lie. As I thought about how happy she was in those moments – She was actually with Athing Mu’s high school coach and Tara Davis’ mom in Orlando having the time of her life. So I think about her smile and her love and all the things and lessons that she gave me and taught me and how happy she would be for me in this moment. I really find a lot of peace in it. I feel like you really find the true beauty of life in those high and low moments. Because just as high as I was, I went just as low as I went so fast.
CHAVEZ: In that last TV interview clip that she did, they asked what she would say to you at that moment? And I think she kind of said that it’s not appropriate for TV. What would she have said?
Some sad news… Olympic Silver Medalist Raven Saunders' mom has died, Raven's coach says.
He says Clarissa Saunders, who we interviewed on Friday, was at #Olympics watch parties in Florida.
— Rob Way (@RobWayTV) August 3, 2021
SAUNDERS: For my mom, her main thing every time she would see me or right before a competition, she’d say ‘Kick ass.’ Every single time. That would be her last words before I would go out for any state championship, any national championship, any USAs or Olympics. Those would be her last words. And it was actually funny, a friend of mine and one of the clips that I did, he actually got a recording of my little sister stealing it from her while they were on the phone together. It was so nice.
CHAVEZ: You went home and took some time off social media. What did that do?
SAUNDERS: I was surrounded by a lot of family. I really wanted to kind of focus on making sure my mom’s homegoing was nice. It was really more so Twitter that I wanted to take a step back from just because Twitter gets very vicious. I would still post updates and things to let certain people know how I was doing. There would be moments where like on my close friends I’d I let my friends know, ‘Hey, I’m in this space like could you guys just pray for me’ and I’d do certain things like that because I find, we all try to be strong independently but I found different ways to be strong within my support system.
CHAVEZ: You’ve been a tremendous and major advocate for mental health. That conversation was taking place during the Olympics with such a big emphasis because of what Simone Biles was going through. So when a tragedy like this strikes you, there’s obviously a lot of concern for you from the general public and fans because they know how much you’ve been through in the past. At the same time, you can’t let everyone into all of your feelings the entire time. So how did you strike that balance of letting the people know, you are alright and taking your time to heal?
SAUNDERS: It was one of those things I knew by previously opening myself up, especially with my battle and going through something like this, I knew there would be a lot of people who weren’t on the inside who were concerned for me. So that was my way, that was my way of kind of letting people know that I’m OK. But I have things I’m handling mentally. You have to take time for yourself. Same with Simone. Actually, when I was on the way to the airport, I found out that Simone the day before I lost my mom, she lost her aunt. It’s one of those things that, when you’re going through grief, everybody grieves differently. I have a couple of friends who have lost their moms this year or last year and sometimes it took them out. But I feel like the fact that I have opened up about mental health has given me that much more of a push, because I know there are people that are looking to me and what I do. So all the things that I talk about that I use to help myself through these things, I’ve been going ten times harder behind. I know I have to do it because I’m preaching to other people, ‘Hey, do this, do this, do this.’ You have to practice what you preach.
CHAVEZ: Did you connect with Simone at all?
SAUNDERS: Yeah, we actually saw each other in the airport before we were leaving out of Tokyo.
CHAVEZ: Did you talk to her or anything?
SAUNDERS: Yeah. So we had a chance to have a quick conversation. It was really nice to kind of share that. I feel like, especially when you see certain people, you really never think about certain things, and especially us two now being on the forefront of mental health, especially within athletes in sports. It was kind of nice to kind of share that moment.
CHAVEZ: Where does that conversation go from here? It had such an emphasis during the Olympics. Naomi Osaka continues to deal with it. She recently broke down during a press conference. It’s not just a hot topic for the week. How do we continue carrying on that momentum?
SAUNDERS: I feel like we go in and change legally and systematically. I feel like there are so many things that we can do to help protect. There are so many laws that can be put into place to help out people. And I feel like that by us – as athletes – being able to talk about it. We’re going to make sure that other people are talking about it because people are like, ‘Well, did you hear about so-and-so?’ I know California is actually in the midst of creating a bill for mental health and things like that. So I feel like as a country…and shoot – as a world…I feel like we can do so much better. And I feel like we’re going to really start stepping in the right direction.
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