By Ben Morse, CNN
(CNN) — U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders has explained what the gesture she made following her silver medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics meant.
The 25-year-old raised her hands and crossed them in an X as she and her fellow medal winners posed for photos, telling NBC that it represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Saunders — a Black, LGBTQ athlete — bagged her first Olympic medal on Saturday, finishing with a distance of 19.79 meters.
China’s Gong Lijiao won gold and New Zealand’s Valerie Adams the bronze.
And after winning her medal, she says she wants to be a role model for others like her.
“For me, just being who I always aspired to be, to be able to be me and not apologize for it (and) show the younger generation that no matter what they tell you, no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you,” she told the media.
“People tell me not to do tattoos and piercings, but now look at me, I’m popping.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said it is looking into the gesture Saunders made on the podium, a potential breach of rules banning protests on medal podiums.
“We’re in contact with U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and with World Athletics,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams on Monday. “I don’t want to say what those next steps would be until we fully understand what is going on. We don’t want to pre-empt anything.”
“We try to respect the views of all the athletes; we’ve given them more opportunity to express themselves. Freedom of expression in press conferences, social media, mixed zone. We’ve created possibilities before the sport begins to make protests.
“But one thing we have noted is we did a survey with 3,500 athletes (and) all those who answered wanted to protect the field of play. It would be good if everyone could respect the views of athletes.”
In reply to a tweet about her gesture, Saunders tweeted: “Let them try and take this medal. I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim.”
‘Keep fighting, keep pushing, keep finding value in yourself’
With her eye-catching mask and celebration after winning her medal — she twerked and then followed it up with another dance for the cameras — Saunders is one of the biggest characters at the Tokyo Summer Games.
However, she has previously faced a tough personal battle.
Between the 2016 Rio Games and Tokyo, Saunders faced difficult personal challenges, suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. She spoke with CNN earlier this year about a time “it all boiled over” and how she found support through therapy, meditation and reaching out to close friends.
Now, she wants to encourage others who are struggling with their mental health to get the support they need.
“My message is to keep fighting, keep pushing, keep finding value in yourself, in everything you do,” she said after winning her silver medal.
“It means a lot to be able to walk away with a silver medal because I do represent so many people. I know 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.
“I’m happy I get to bring this back for them, not just myself.”
The topic of athletes’ mental health has been a topic of hot discussion during the Tokyo Games after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from numerous competitions citing her mental health.
Saunders’ nickname — ‘Hulk’ after the Marvel superhero — originated because of the similarities between her mental health journey and the journey of the big, green superhero.
“When I initially became the Hulk, I didn’t know how to differentiate the Hulk from Raven. It was kind of hard to battle between the two, but as life went on, I was forced to deal with some things and learn how to compartmentalize, to control the Hulk and use the Hulk in the right way.
“I save it for competitions so that Raven can have fun, reach out to people, seek therapy, do yoga, meditate — all those things to create a strong mind. Without a strong mind, you can’t have a strong body.”
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