As she passed a drop off along a Mississippi highway, the urge to pull off the road in the direction of the towering trees below was almost overwhelming.
“It just got worse and worse and worse and worse until it all boiled over… I remember in the morning, I was just doing the movements, I was a little dazed, I had things to do, but I didn’t really have the motivation or care to really do anything.
“Then jump in my car and drive and look at this place.”
A few months before, Saunders had considered how slim the odds of survival would be if someone were to leave the edge of the same drop off she was now skirting around.
However, it was an impromptu text to a former therapist – “truly a last ditch” – that saved his life. She quickly received a response, giving her the confidence and courage to return home and get the help she needed.
Today, Saunders is preparing for the US Olympic Trials in June. Looking ahead to her looming second Olympics, she wants to “de-stigmatize mental health” and help others who, like her, may be caught in cycles of depression and anxiety.
More than three years after that January day, she can now reflect on how her struggles as a student athlete led to her lowest moment.
“Mentally and emotionally school was tough,” says Saunders, 25.
“It wasn’t necessarily the job, because I can do the job, but it was the pressures and the stress and all those obligatory things that you had to do and the places you had to be that to me seemed unnecessary, because that I was there to throw the shot put.
“I got to a place where, coming back from the Olympics, I was wondering who I was. I was broken down because it’s like I’m put back in this place where I don’t necessarily want to be. “
Saunders’ depression was exacerbated by injury prior to 2017. Although she won the United States National Championship that year, she also lost her NCAA title and finished disappointingly 10th at the National Championships. world in London.
When his performance fell, his broader outlook on life also declined; it meant that being in college became even more difficult.
“The track was my first love… (it) gave me that punch to grow in the environment I was in,” says Saunders.
“I wasn’t necessarily fulfilled because being a young black LGBTQ woman in America and being in Mississippi – the (most) old school of old school places you can find in America – that was really hard. to go through a phase of trying to learn and finding myself in a place where I didn’t feel fully accepted.
“Through it all, it’s become the hardest thing. It’s like I’m trying to learn to find myself, but I can’t do it. And the only thing I have is is the track and when the track goes wrong it’s like I have nothing. “
As she continues to experience episodes of depression, Saunders’ past experiences have equipped her with tools to try and stay on top of her sanity.
She says she is “eternally grateful” to the University of Mississippi for helping her register at mental health facilities in early 2018, and also highlights the support she received through therapy .
“It (the therapy) helped me a lot,” Saunders says, “having the time to really work on the things that I was personally facing, really issues from childhood.
“It was nice to be able to have someone carrying all the weight I’m carrying – I don’t have to carry it on my own.”
Being able to speak candidly with a group of close friends has also been found to be beneficial, as has meditation.
“It gives me a chance to reflect and really talk to myself,” adds Saunders.
“Everyone thinks meditation is like, ‘Oh, you have to be calm, silent, and your mind has to be clear and free.’ And that’s not how I use it at all.
“I use it as a place to be fair with myself and really come to terms with certain things and learn that the hard times – they go by; the obstacles – you get over them. No matter what it is at that time, it will get better. “
Since speaking publicly about her experiences over the past five years, Saunders has been overwhelmed by the response – “It’s support, it’s love,” she says.
Saunders has been known for her strength since high school, when she was given the nickname “Hulk”, and it was thanks to a basketball coach that she was first encouraged to take up the game. shot put in adolescence.
She won a state championship in her freshman year and became an NCAA indoor and outdoor champion in college.
At 20 when she arrived at her first Olympics, Saunders used this experience to soak up as much knowledge as possible and learn from her more experienced teammates.
She placed fifth in Rio with her last throw of 19.35m. Upon her return to the United States, she was greeted with a parade in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, as the city declared August 17, 2016 to be Raven Saunders Day.
After undergoing hip surgery last year, Saunders set a personal indoor record of 19.57m in February, a timely performance in an Olympic year.
And outside of the throwing circle, she also feels compelled to take on another mission.
“The people that I can help, or the people who are trying to improve themselves or who ask for help because of my personal history, it really warms my heart,” says Saunders.
“I always felt that in life trying to reach people – help people – was really my goal.”
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