When U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders is competing, she calls herself the "Hulk." It's the alter ego that bursts onto the field to fight for championships.
Saunders — with the help of her "Hulk" persona — took silver in the women's shot put final at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. She hurled the heavy ball 19.79 meters, or nearly 65 feet. It's the third medal ever for the U.S. in the women's event and it's Saunders' first.
"I remember my first Olympics, being able to watch Michelle Carter come out here and, you know, get it done," she said, referring to the U.S. female gold medalist in shot put at the 2016 Games. "I made sure that when I came out from 2016, constantly fighting and constantly pushing through everything, I made sure I walked away with a medal."
China's Gong Lijiao took gold and Valerie Adams, of New Zealand, won bronze.
It was a long journey to Tokyo for Saunders, after years of openly struggling with depression following the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and then leaving the world stage to return to normal life. She was hospitalized, she suffered through injuries and then got a second chance to compete on the world stage.
Saunders said she's been so open about her mental health struggles so others don't feel alone. It's also why she wears her identities so proudly as a gay Black woman.
"Being able to walk away with a medal and be able to go out here and really inspire so many people in the LGBTQ community, so many people who have been dealing with mental health issues," she said. "So many people in the African-American community, so many people who are Black all around the world. I really just hope that I can continue to inspire and motivate."
Saunders is one of at least 179 LGBTQ athletes competing in the Games, according to Outsports. It's by far the most out athletes to ever compete in an Olympics.
On the medal podium, she crossed her wrists above her head in an "X." Later, she explained the meaning: "It's the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet," she said, according to The Associated Press.
Let them try and take this medal. I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim 😂 https://t.co/B59N2v9KAk— Raven HULK Saunders (@GiveMe1Shot) August 1, 2021
In Tokyo, Saunders has taken the social media world by storm with her colorful looks and larger-than-life persona. After winning her medal, she vogued with the American Flag on the field, then walked off singing, "Celebrate good times, come on!"
During competition, she was decked out in shades of green: green and white Air Jordan 13s, green and purple hair, and her signature Hulk mask that puts her in the mode to "smash." Her comic book alter ego is fun, but it's also a way to separate Raven the competitor and Raven the person.
"I had a tough time differentiating between the two," she said after her competition. "But through my journey, especially dealing with mental health and things like that, I learned how to compartmentalize the same way Bruce Banner learned how to control the Hulk... a sign of mental peace when he wasn't the Hulk." In the comic books, scientist Bruce Banner must find ways to harness his super-strong, out-of-control alter ego.
The Charleston, S.C. native loves the attention she's gotten for her look and for her sport. But eventually, she says, the attention will die down.
"I kind of learned my value outside of the sport," she said. "I know that the medal, it's cool. It's a bonus. It's a plus. But really, the thing that I'm most excited about is constantly, you know, inspiring and pushing people and really still being an advocate for my community."
"I'm part of a lot of communities, God dang."
She laughs. She wants to represent them all.
KELSEY SNELL, HOST:
U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders became the first Olympic athlete to defy protest rules on the podium when she collected her silver medal. Saunders is an outspoken Black gay woman and a fierce advocate. She's taken the social media world by storm with her colorful outfits and infectious personality. NPR's Leila Fadel reports her win delighted her virtual fans.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: When the medal was hers, Saunders mimed a hair flip, twerked, and then vogued with the American flag for the cameras. That twerk, that flip immediately became a meme. Fan videos spread on social media set to tunes like Queen Latifah's "Ladies First."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADIES FIRST")
QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Oh, ladies first. Ladies first. Oh, ladies first. Ladies first.
FADEL: Saunders' larger-than-life personality has captured the world's attention. She calls herself Hulk, her alter ego that smashes on the field. And on Sunday, in all shades of green, from her Air Jordan 13s, to her hair, to her signature Hulk mask, she did. She hurled the weighted metal ball nearly 65 feet, securing just the third Olympic medal ever for the U.S. in the women's event.
RAVEN SAUNDERS: For me, it means a lot to be able to walk away with the silver medal because I do represent so many people. And I know that there are so many people that have been looking up to me, so many people that have messaged me, so many people that have been praying for me. And I just am happy that, you know, I get to bring this back for them, not just myself.
FADEL: She's out and proud and unapologetically herself. She has a penchant for tattoos, dramatic hairstyles and statement shades. It's who she is, and she wants to show the younger generation that's OK.
SAUNDERS: No matter what it is that people tell you, like, no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you know, be it your coaches or whoever the case may be, you can be you, and people will accept it. You know, people told me not to do, you know, tattoos and piercings and all of this stuff, but now look at me. I'm popular.
FADEL: To all those who see themselves in her, she says...
SAUNDERS: Keep fighting. Keep pushing.
FADEL: It was a long road for Saunders to get to Tokyo. After her Olympic debut in 2016, she was welcomed home to Charleston, S.C., with a marching band.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FADEL: She was and is a hometown hero. But as the fanfare died down, depression took hold. Here she is in a PBS documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AN OLYMPIC ATHLETE TAKES ON DEPRESSION")
SAUNDERS: It was like the weight of the world was resting on my chest, and there was nothing that I could do about it.
FADEL: She stopped caring, lost passion for her sport and contemplated driving off a cliff. In a desperate moment, she reached out to a therapist who promised help. And she got that help. She checked into a hospital and became public about her struggle so others don't feel alone. After her medal on Sunday, she shared what she learned.
SAUNDERS: Find value in yourself. Find value in, you know, everything you do. Find a reason.
FADEL: Among Saunders' reasons is advocating for the many communities she represents. She's one of a record-breaking 179 athletes competing at the Olympics this year that are openly part of the LGBTQ community, according to Outsports. And she's one of many speaking up about the pressure, stress and anxiety that come with competing at an elite level. Her alter ego, Hulk, is how she harnesses the explosion of emotion she draws on to volley the shot in the air, but she says she had to figure out how to turn the Hulk off.
SAUNDERS: When I initially became the Hulk, I didn't know how to differentiate the Hulk from Raven. I learned how to control the Hulk and, you know, use the Hulk in the right way, to save that for, you know, meet competitions and things like that so that, you know, Raven could, you know, have her fun and be able to deal with things the right way - reach out to people, you know, seek therapy, do yoga, meditate.
FADEL: She learned her value outside of her sport and the reach of her platform. On the podium, she briefly crossed your arms in an X and later said it's the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.