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The mask came off, the gnashed teeth of the Hulk gone, a face of these Tokyo Olympics revealed.
Raven Saunders wore a nose ring and a sweat-drenched smile above the facial covering she had pulled into a scrunch below her chin. She had just draped herself in an American flag and shimmied around the track inside Olympic Stadium, commencing a celebration of redemption, of perseverance, of duality.
The television cameras that followed Saunders around like paparazzi, capturing her purple and green hair and visually striking masks — the Joker for the preliminary round, the Hulk for the finals — could add another hue to the kaleidoscope.
A silver medal draped around Saunders’ neck would be the final image Sunday after the 25-year-old from Charleston, S.C., twisted herself into a blur and unleashed a throw of 64 feet 11¼ inches in the shot put. She was beaten only by Lijiao Gong, whose personal-best throw of 67-6¼ prompted gasps inside a nearly empty stadium and made her the first woman from China to win a gold medal in the event.
For Saunders, the triumph was both personal and communal. She has openly acknowledged severe struggles with mental health that led her to contemplate suicide and understands the potential for her success to prop up others like herself in the Black and LGBTQ communities.
“I’m part of a lot of communities, God dang,” Saunders, who finished fifth in 2016 at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, said with a laugh. “I just really hope that I can continue to inspire and motivate.”
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) August 1, 2021
Success in these Summer Games was long in doubt. Two months ago, Saunders called a friend and sobbed about her latest injury, a torn hip muscle that threatened to derail her Olympics. She then tweaked her Achilles in the preliminary round here and overcame two foot faults that wiped out what would have been phenomenal throws.
Her mental health issues could have derailed more than her career. Failing to extricate herself from the Hulk persona that had driven her success and become her nickname, Saunders has said she considered killing herself in 2018. A therapist helped her understand that she should not define herself by how far she could heave an 8.8-pound ball of lead and steel.
“Earlier on, similar to the Hulk, I had a tough time differentiating between the two, I had a tough time controlling when the Hulk came out or when the Hulk didn’t come out,” Saunders said, “but through my journey, especially dealing with mental health and things like that, I learned to compartmentalize.”
She shelved the Hulk in the preliminary round in favor of a creepy-smile Joker mask that she complemented with matching hair colors. On Sunday, the Hulk re-emerged.
“I was trying to lay it down,” Saunders said of her change in sartorial strategy. “Hulk smash, all day long.”
Clapping her hands over her head before her throws, energizing not only herself but also a small gathering of athletes and staff in the stands who repeated the gesture, Saunders also announced, in slightly more colorful terms, that she didn’t want anything easy.
“I really can’t repeat it because y’all going to have to bleep out most of the things that I say,” Saunders said of her verbal self-motivation. “But pretty much, to sum it up, I’m telling myself, 'You’ve got it, you’ve got it, like you’re a champion, you have to push, nobody’s going to give it to you, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to grind, you’ve got to get it.’ ”
Her financial portfolio figures to benefit. After recently hearing someone estimate her net worth at between $1 million and $3 million, Saunders posted on social media a screenshot showing her bank account balance. It was negative $538, a reflection of her investment in a career that has finally hit the jackpot.
“By the time I get back to the States,” Saunders said, “we ain’t broke no more, baby!”
Of course, all her problems won’t be solved by one Olympic medal. Saunders said she would resume seeing a therapist to nurture her well-being and encourage others in the Black community to erase the stigma surrounding mental health outreach.
She also hopes that her wild hair, her zany masks and her unvarnished quotes can inspire a legion of others in the way that tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams once moved her.
“They were young Black girls with beads in their hair, unapologetic,” Saunders said, “and for me as a kid, that inspired me initially, especially to be myself.”
She was at it again on the medals stand Sunday night, crossing her arms above her head in a gesture that she later told reporters represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Mask on or off, Saunders has come to realize, what’s worth celebrating will remain what lies underneath.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.