Raven Saunders knew what she wanted to accomplish at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The Team USA shot putter had finished fifth — just a half-meter off the medal podium — at the Rio Olympics. In Tokyo, Saunders was laser-focused on a medal; And once she won that medal, she wanted to use her platform to make a big statement about humanity, intersectionality and inclusion.
Done and done.
Saunders won a silver medal in Tokyo and immediately used her new platform to make sure people around the world saw that an Olympic medalist saw them.
When she raised her arms over her head in an “X” on the medal podium, Saunders knew backlash may be coming. “Demonstrations” by athletes at Olympics have long been frowned upon by some. Yet Saunders — a Black gay woman — could not let the opportunity pass without sending people around the world a hug.
She chose the “X” specifically because it represented the cross-sections of humanity, where all types of people come together as one.
The Olympics came calling but ultimately backed off from any kind of sanction against Saunders, who lost her mother hours after she won her silver medal.
Both before and since her big medal-winning performance in Tokyo, Saunders has been the personification of self-expression. Dying her hair and wearing fun, colorful masks during competition, Saunders has refused to back away from expressing herself and her identities, with rainbow flags in her social media bios.
Saunders was previously named to the Out 100 for 2021.
For her courage to stand up for others, her strength to express her true self, and for that spectacular performance in Tokyo, Raven Saunders is Outsports’ Female Hero of the Year.
Erica Sullivan: After the Team USA swimmer won a silver medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Sullivan did not shy away from all she is in celebrating herself as the “epitome of an American person.”
“I’m multicultural. I’m queer. I’m a lot of minorities. That’s what America is,” she said, via the Washington Post. “That’s what America is. To me, America is not about being a majority. It’s about having your own start. The American Dream is coming to a country to establish what you want to do with your life.”
It was powerful to see her speak to all of who she is representing Team USA in the pool, just hours after her big Olympic moment.
Women who exposed abuse: Athletes in multiple women’s sports in 2021 forced change by publicly spoke up about abuse they alleged at the hands of coaches and others in management.
In the NWSL, a groundswell of support for players erupted when Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim levied public allegations against their former coach, Paul Riley. The allegations have inspired others to speak up and have forced various changes in ownership, coaching staffs and management across the league.
In the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, national team players Kaitlyn Eaton and Courtney Ryan spoke up about abuse they alleged against their Team USA coach, Trooper Johnson. Former national team player and coach Stephanie Wheeler resigned from the association’s board in protest of Johnson’s further employment. Johnson resigned hours later.
Uniting these cries for change haven’t been just allegations of misconduct, but also the desire of these women to see more women in coaching and management roles. With so few women getting opportunities in men’s sports, their hope of seeing more opportunities for women should be heard and are being heard.