Raven Saunders, her mom’s memory at heart, takes on challenge at USATF Outdoor Champs

Raven Saunders

Raven Saunders often carries her Olympic shot put silver medal with her. She always wears a locket containing her mother’s ashes.

Saunders is one of many Americans competing this week in their first championship meet since the Tokyo Games. A top-three finish at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, will qualify her for July’s world championships, also in Eugene, the first to be held in the U.S.

USATF OUTDOORS: TV Schedule | Results

Saunders was one of the breakout stars in Tokyo. She garnered attention not just for becoming the third U.S. woman to win an Olympic shot put medal, but also for her character. Her green and purple hair, her biceps flexing and that green mask fitting her nickname, “Hulk.”

On the medal podium, she crossed her arms above her head to form an “X,” which she said was “to try and bring the world together for all people who have felt left behind, for all people who have wanted to be loved but have been loved less.”

“Gave EVERYTHING for this. If you are BLACK, LGBTQIA+, Or mentally Struggling. This one is for you,” she shared on Instagram.

Saunders told Outsports.com that she first came out to her mom in third grade and by ninth grade was comfortable with who she was. After her Olympic debut in 2016, she struggled with mental health and contemplated suicide.

Last year, few people knew that Saunders tore her right hip early in the season. Even fewer knew she tweaked her Achilles walking into the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo before competing and then winning the silver medal.

Afterward, her mom, Clarissa, told her, “You have a few things in you that I wish that I had in me.” They talked about the house and the food truck that were in their future.

Two days after the final, Saunders received a phone call from the U.S. Clarissa suffered a seizure and was en route to a hospital, a doctor told her. Later, Saunders’ uncle called and told her that Clarissa had passed.

“At that point, I lost it,” Saunders said on the On Her Turf podcast last year. “I think I threw my phone. Literally Hulk smash pummeled the walls. It was just so much built up for me in that moment. It was like, how? Especially because we didn’t have our families there [in Tokyo], and then to lose the No. 1 person that really made a lot of this worthwhile, it hurt.

“Talking about it makes it a lot easier, and it also helps remind me of memories.”

Since returning home from Japan, Saunders moved to Orlando. She had a second hip surgery in the fall (and returned to throwing one week later). She goes through airports and gets stares and the question, “Are you …. ?”

“It’s been a nice, nice change,” she said earlier this month. “It’s definitely taken some getting used to because, at first, I’ll be like, why are you staring at me? After a while, now that I’ve put my energy out there, people kind of see that I’m a real person. It helps.”

The toughest part of the last year has been experiencing it all without her mom. They helped each other through difficult times. She said that, at age 12, she protected Clarissa from a boyfriend who was high on drugs.

Clarissa was a guardian angel, Saunders said. Clarissa regularly called to make sure Saunders took her anxiety and depression medication.

“The greatest thing that I’ve had to overcome was trying to stand on my own and navigate this new space,” she said, adding that continuing therapy sessions and spending time in nature has also helped.

Saunders competes Sunday at the site of career highlights. She qualified for both of her Olympics in Eugene. In 2014, she made her international debut at the world junior championships at Hayward Field and earned a silver medal.

She also competes during Pride Month, which has significance as well.

“It’s kind of funny how, these past few years, [Pride Month] has transitioned to actually being a thing where [before] it was something that was more so celebrated within the community,” Saunders said. “Having people and family members tell you, ‘Happy Pride Month,’ especially for so long feeling that we were invisible or shunned and things like that, it really starts to help the whole self-appreciation and knowing that you’re loved and knowing that people actually truly do care around you.”

Though Saunders was the world’s second-best thrower last year, she ranks sixth among Americans so far in 2022. There are three Americans in the world’s top eight, plus No. 9 Maggie Ewen, who has a bye into worlds as the reigning Diamond League season champion, giving the U.S. four spots at worlds.

Last year, Saunders entered Olympic Trials ranked 10th in the nation for the year. Then she threw a personal best at trials, also in Eugene, to qualify for her second Olympics.

The reason that Saunders carries her Olympic silver medal with her is so that anybody who recognizes her gets a chance to see it. At the same time, it’s a source of motivation as she gazes at it.

“I’ve got to work harder,” she said. “I’ve got to get gold. I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to throw farther.”

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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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