In 2016, a 21-year-old Raven Saunders finished fifth in the Rio 2016 shot put competition. Just two years later, she found herself at rock bottom and contemplated taking her own life. Tokyo 2020 spoke to the Team USA athlete about her sport, struggles with depression and mission to de-stigmatise mental health.
In January 2018, Raven Saunders was on her way to the University of Mississippi college campus. But that day, instead of entering the grounds, she just drove right past.
Over the previous months, coming off a "gruelling" 2017 shot put season and dragged down by the constant repetition of study, train, compete, Saunders had found herself at her lowest point.
As she steered away from the campus that morning, she knew she'd reached a place in her life where she didn't care anymore.
"I was literally in a daze and I didn’t stop," explained the USA's Rio 2016 Olympian, who had finished fifth in the Olympic shot put competition only a year and a half earlier.
Driving towards the highway, she made a pact with herself to text her former therapist. If she replied, Saunders would talk to her. If she didn't, she would drive off the steep drop at the side of the road.
"I reached out to my therapist and framed it in the sense that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but letting her know a lot of the things that had been burdening me until that point."
"And in my mind I’m like, ‘If I don’t hear back, then that’s it,’ because this is the only person I feel comfortable enough to reach out to," she explained.
The therapist received her message and immediately replied. It was just in time.
"I was really grateful for that," recalled Saunders.
"Because that strip, the next corner… once we hit the highway, it probably would have been done."
A rapid rise to the top
Saunders was born in 1996 in Charleston, South Carolina, a port city with cobblestone streets on the south eastern coast of the United States. Growing up she harboured a love for basketball, but in her own words “stopped growing so I had to pick up another sport. And track and field became that sport for me”.
Within track and field, the event she chose was shot put.
After a strong start as a freshman athlete, things really started to take off for Saunders when she won the state championships. It was the moment she realised that she “really could do something in this sport.”
From there, she rose quickly through the rankings, winning four NCAA championships. Team USA came calling and by the age of 21, Saunders had been named on the USA team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
It was the culmination of years of grafting; “a validation for the hard work, the tears, you know the sweat and sore muscles, the injuries - all of that finally paid itself off."
Rio 2016 represented a spectacular entrance for Raven Saunders on the global stage - and she enjoyed every second of the experience.
"I loved every single bit of it," she recalled. "I remember walking into the Opening Ceremony and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m here. I’ve arrived, I belong here'."
In a historic competition, in which her compatriot Michelle Carter produced a spectacular last throw to become the first ever U.S. woman to win shot put gold, Saunders placed an impressive fifth.
It seemed at the time the college sophomore was heading straight to the top. But instead, the next years would see Saunders hit rock bottom.
Reality hits hard
When Saunders returned home after the Olympic Games, she did so to a hero's welcome. In her home town of Charleston, they declared 17 August 2016 'Raven Saunders Day' and celebrated her Olympic accomplishments with a parade through the streets.
"The amount of love I got when I got home… you never really know the impact you have on people and how you affect people indirectly by just doing what you do," Saunders remembered.
"And it was crazy because some of these kids I was in school with and now they were telling me how big it was and how inspired they were. And I was like, ‘this? really, for me?’ It was mind blowing."
But the high Saunders felt in that moment would not last long.
I just decided I’d do what I’d been doing my whole life and internalise it all.
After a whirlwind period where she was ferried from one commitment to another, Saunders found herself back at university, having not had the time to sit back and enjoy her successes.
In fact, at a time when some people around her presumed she had everything, Saunders began to feel lost and empty.
"It was just a lot of pressures," the 2016 Olympian explained. "And also being quite young in my journey and seeing friends that were living the life that I wanted to have at that point, it just became a lot mentally weighing down on me."
Worst of all, as she began to spiral into depression, Saunders felt completely alone - unable to share what she was going through with the people around her.
"When you start to try and say certain things to people subtly without exposing too much and feeling very vulnerable, it’s like 'you don’t have anything to worry about, you just went to the Olympics.' All of the mental challenges you have sometimes get brushed to the side or blown off as if you shouldn’t have anything to worry about."
Before long, Saunders had lost her appetite to do anything other than train. And even that pleasure was sometimes taken away from her as she began to incur punishments for slacking off at school.
"I couldn’t go to practice and I was like, ‘Well, what’s the point'," explained Saunders. "It didn’t feel like I had that many people to reach out to or that I wanted to burden.
"So I just decided I’d do what I’d been doing my whole life and internalise it all."
As Saunders drove away from the college campus that fateful day in January 2018, she was a coin toss away from ending her life when her therapist called.
"She told me, 'Hey hold on, I got you, you’re worthy, you’re worth it.' Just a bunch of really good things I needed to hear in that moment and like, 'Hey I’m going to get you some help, just go home, sit down for a bit'.”
Saunders took her advice and returned home. Soon afterwards, her head trainer called and that same day booked her into a mental health facility. It was the beginning of her journey to get better.
"It helped me more than you could know," explained Saunders simply.
Just focusing on myself for once, it was amazing, it was needed, it was a wonderful break.
And it was a life saver.
Up until that point, Saunders' feelings of self worth had always been inextricably linked to her status as an athlete. As she herself explained, "I based my value of myself on my value in a sport. So when I would see that value start to deteriorate I would place that value on myself. So it would put me into a downward spiral."
But now in the mental health facility, she began to place value on herself as a person:
"They helped me to realise, you are not your sport. You’re Raven, that’s good at what you do. And being able to separate the two and being able to appreciate myself as a person and then myself as an athlete really opened myself up to being able to be truly happy.
"Just focusing on myself for once, after having years and years of non-stop focusing on track, it was amazing, it was needed, it was a wonderful break. And it was a life saver."
De-stigmatising negativity towards mental health
The Raven Saunders of today is in a very different place than she was two years ago. Not only has she discovered more tools that she can use to deal with depression when she begins to feel it overwhelming her, she has also learned that sharing does not make you a burden to others. In many ways it can lessen the load.
"I remember that first step was very scary and it made me very vulnerable, but I was so happy that I did it. A lot of times when you're going through troubles and pains and trials and tribulations, if you find other people that say, 'Hey, I'm going through the same thing' it makes it easier because you think you're not in the fight alone," she said.
And now having passed through her lowest moments, Saunders is using her experiences and position as an athlete to inspire others who have suffered through similar situations to herself - particularly through her work with Well Beings, an organisation focused on de-stigmatising mental health issues.
"We’re trying to de-stigmatise all the negativity towards mental health, because in the past mental health has always been something that people always brush aside, which leads to the suicide [rate] we’re at now."
“So just by telling our stories as regular people - or athletes or artists or singers or dancers or whatever the case may be - that people, no matter who you may be, can feel that connection.”
The long road to Tokyo
Saunders is now in a place where she can look forward. And next year's Olympic Games in Tokyo are something she definitely has her eyes clearly set on.
"I'm antsy for it. I love competition and I can't wait to get back and compete against those wonderful ladies out there," she said with enthusiasm.
And while the road to get there has been long and bumpy, Saunders wants to enjoy every aspect of next year's Games and continue this new chapter of her life with hope and positivity.
"I'm looking forward to enjoying the full Olympics, to stay until the end. I've seen so many wonderful things about Japan... so I'm just excited, once everything is done, of being able to fully take advantage and enjoy."
The Tokyo 2020 women's shot put competition begins on Friday 30 July 2021, with the final taking place on Sunday 1 August 2021.