EUGENE, Ore. — Gwen Berry raised her fist, thumped it against her chest two times and set off on her quest for an even bigger stage to spread her message.
The hammer thrower, who forced the U.S. Olympic world into an uncomfortable conversation about demonstrations at the games, finished sixth in qualifying at track and field trials Thursday. She’ll be in the final Saturday competing for one of three tickets to Tokyo.
“Today means a lot to me,” said the 31-year-old mom, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Activist Athlete.’ “My message is very powerful. I want to impact the world.”
Her opening gestures, which came as she was introduced to a crowd of a few hundred watching the hammer area just outside of Hayward Field, wouldn’t have been news were it not for the voice Berry has found since she raised her fist on the medals stand two summers ago at the Pan-Am Games in Peru.
After her demonstration in Lima, Berry received a yearlong probation for violating international rules that ban protests and demonstrations inside the lines.
But last year’s summer of violence in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd sparked changes. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said it would not enforce the ban at trials this year and would not sanction athletes who violate the IOC’s Rule 50 in Tokyo.
Berry has frequently spoken about her plans to use the platform in Tokyo, and anywhere else she has an audience.
Earlier this week, she signed a deal with Puma, which is paying her $15,000 providing her equipment and apparel and placing her in a campaign called “She Moves Us,” The Washington Post reported.
That deal came after the activist group Color of Change worked to help Berry and others find sponsors; Berry lost endorsements in the wake of her demonstration in Peru.
“I just want everyone to understand that, as athletes, we can use our voice, we should use our voices to bring awareness to these issues that impact our communities,” Berry said. “Because our communities are the communities that are under attack.”
Berry’s qualifying throw of 232 feet, 1 inch (70.74 meters) fell almost 20 feet short of her season best. Some of her biggest competition comes from her own country. Four of the top five throws of 2021 have come from Americans, including world champion DeAnna Price, Pan-Am Games runner-up Brooke Andersen and Janee’ Kassanavoid.
Some might feel the pressure for Saturday’s finals. But Berry doesn’t look at it that way.
“I feel like being Black in America is enough pressure,” she said. “The neighborhoods I grew up in is enough pressure. The things I have to deal with and I have to protect my son from is enough pressure. And I’m here. I’m old enough to be able to handle a lot of this pressure.”