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When Pressure Mounts

How Olympian Raven Saunders navigates stress, setbacks, and difficult emotions.

Professional athletics and intense emotions go hand in hand. Raven Saunders, a 25-year-old shot-putter and 2021 Olympian, has faced stiff pressure, devastating setbacks, and euphoric achievements, as when she placed fifth in the 2016 Olympics.

Saunders was riding high after the Rio games, honored with a parade in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, and newfound celebrity at college. But that joy was soon replaced by stress, frustration, and depression, and Saunders nearly attempted suicide. But she reached out for help and has since become an advocate for athletes’ mental health, as well as an example of how to develop difficult yet critical coping skills.

Q: How do you manage your mental health?

When you’re an athlete, you live two lives. You have life outside your sport, and you have life inside your sport. That’s why they say athletes die twice. A lot of us have to learn to separate the two. It’s common for our personal life to be affected by our life as an athlete, especially if that’s not going well, because that’s what we base our life around. It’s like your two identities become intertwined—you never get a break to just be yourself.

I learned that I had to find myself outside that world. Something I like to ask young athletes is, “Who are you outside of your sport?” I think life is easier for those who have a hobby, so they can separate from their athlete self. For me, that’s gaming or going to the park and the lake. I’ve been learning how to enjoy the space I’m in, good or bad, and finding things outside of track and field that make me happy.

I’ve also developed techniques like understanding my triggers—noticing signs like isolation—and then I hit up a few of the closest people to me. Another is meditation—I take a few minutes to cut off the outside world. Another is using positive affirmations if I realize that I’m constantly beating myself down. Every time I say something negative, I have to follow it up with three positives.

Doing these things makes me feel better since I’m not allowing myself to just sit and absorb being in this dark place. When going from a high point to a low point, I think: I’ve made it through this time and time again. There’s no reason I can’t make it through now.