With fist raised, Olympic track and field star Gwen Berry determined to make a difference

Gwen Berry didn't plan to raise her fist when she stepped to the Pan Am Games podium. But the gesture was years in the making. Claudio Cruz/Lima 2019 News Services via AP

MOMENTS AFTER WINNING a gold medal at last month's Pan American Games, American hammer thrower Gwen Berry stepped to the podium, unaware of what she was about to do or the ripples it would cause.

She accepted her gold medal and turned toward the American flag. "The Star-Spangled Banner" began to play.

It was an instrumental version of the national anthem; the words played only in her mind. As the notes usually accompanied by "o'er the land of the free" swelled, Berry closed her eyes. She bowed her head, swayed slightly on her feet and pushed her right fist into the air as the final notes played.

She thought of her father, an Iraq War veteran. She thought about her recent trip to a former slave plantation in Louisiana and her time at a Mississippi Freedom School, where she spent Saturday mornings learning about black history. She thought of her hometown of Ferguson, Missouri, and her family there, including her teenage son.

In the days following the medal ceremony -- on the same day American fencer Race Imboden took a knee on his podium -- the discourse was swift.

"Love our country or move out!!" one person tweeted to Berry.

"If you don't love the USA, then represent some commie country instead of leeching off a host you despise to get your 'moment in the sun,'" another said, tagging Berry and Imboden. "You act like stray dogs ..."

She was called a traitor and a "pathetic joke."

On the other side of the noise was Berry's father, Michael, part of the inspiration for why she raised her fist in the first place. On the phone that night, he told his daughter that he had her back no matter what.

"For her to do that on the podium is more American than anything, if you ask me," he said. "Because that's what our country is founded on: freedom of expression, freedom of speech."

Beneath the endless swirl of debate on sports protests, how 30-year-old Berry got to that moment on the podium was no accident. Inspired by what she calls an awakening into the history of African Americans in the United States and a strengthening of her identity as a black woman, she raised her fist not only as a protest of a system she sees as broken but also as a tribute to sacrifices -- both from her family and from past generations within her community -- that have allowed her to play a sport, much less stand on a podium, with a platform and a voice.

As Berry prepares to compete in the world championships this week and the Olympic trials in June, with hope of making a second straight Olympics, she feels more connected than ever to her sport and the platform it provides. After years of searching -- culminating on that podium -- Berry is ready to use the voice she has discovered.

"I made my statement," she said. "I did what I had to do, so for me now, it's more about acting. ... As a country, I feel like we know the real issues, but we're not willing to act on those issues or sacrifice things to just balance the scales. I want to figure out what my role is in it all and how I can make a difference."

BERRY'S STORY STARTS in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. She grew up in a bustling house of sometimes more than a dozen family members, with several generations of her father's side of the family packed under one roof. At times they went three or four to a room, even converting a large closet to a bedroom. It was cramped, but Gwen learned from an early age the power of having a tight-knit family surrounding her.

Her father, Michael, was 17 years old when she was born. Her mother, Michael said, thought it was better for Gwen to be raised in a home full of relatives than by a single mom living on her own.

So tiny Gwen moved in with her father's family. Michael spent the first few years of Gwen's life going back and forth from their home in Ferguson to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, where he played football. There, he spent time in the library, reading up on black history and civil rights. He ripped out pages of Jet magazine dedicated to the historical black figure of the week, pasting all the pictures into a collage he kept for years.

When Michael came home, he shared what he'd learned with Gwen, even if she was too young to understand.

Gwen was a natural athlete as a kid. Basketball was her first sport and, the family agreed, her best. Even if she wasn't the best free throw shooter, she was aggressive in the paint and an unstoppable rebounder. In her offseason, she took up track and field -- competing in the sprints and triple jump -- to prime her explosiveness.

But early in high school, two events loomed larger than her budding athletic prowess.

She became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, Derrick, three weeks after her 15th birthday. Any temptation to be irresponsible from that point onward flattened. She had someone looking up to her, which made her want to "thrive a little harder."

"When you're younger, you're kind of living for yourself, right?" she said. "But when you have a kid, you've got to up your game a whole other level because you're not living for yourself no more. You have to make better decisions."

As Gwen started experiencing what it was like to have someone look up to her, a person she looked up to left the family home.

Michael tried (and failed) to make a few professional football teams before he decided to take a different route. He signed up for the Army reserves. In 2004, mere weeks after Derrick was born, Michael was deployed to Iraq.

"My dad fought for this country. He was away from four kids," Berry said. "My dad taught me a lot about this world and this life, especially about history and African history. He was always a rebel, always spoke up for himself, did what was right for himself and his family, and I feel like that's where I get some of my drive from."

Michael returned to the United States midway through Gwen's high school years -- just in time to see her athletic potential explode. She set triple jump records at McCluer High School as a sophomore, junior and senior. Basketball was her first love, but track and field was the relationship that would last. Southern Illinois offered her a scholarship, and she took it.

It was difficult for Gwen to leave her family, including her young son. But Derrick was living happily with his paternal grandfather as both his father and Gwen went to college. She saw him each time she visited home, just a two-hour drive away.

When she arrived in Carbondale in 2007, Berry's coaches saw her potential as a thrower, rather than a jumper. Three months later, she threw the junior national qualifying mark.

A rise up the ranks came quickly. In 2008, she finished top-five in the hammer throw at the USA junior championships. As a senior, she won the Missouri Valley Conference outdoor title in shot put and had the second-best weight throw (an indoor version of the hammer throw with a heavier ball) in the world that year.

Berry graduated from Southern Illinois and -- "because I'm crazy" -- decided to go all-in on track and field. By 2014, she ranked 17th in the world in the hammer throw. Two years later, she threw a national and North American record of 76.31 meters at the Tucson Elite Classic (a record since stripped from her because she used a banned asthma medication). At the 2016 Olympic trials, she placed second, earning a spot on the team that would travel to Rio. In 2017, she set a world record in the weight throw (25.6 meters).

In the midst of her success, though, Berry struggled. Always top of mind was the question of how much longer she could keep this up: training by day and working part-time. She worked at a bookstore, sold mattresses, delivered for Insomnia Cookies and worked at Dick's Sporting Goods at various points. Why did she keep going in a sport that barely paid? She was away from her family and could barely pay her bills.

Even more importantly, she craved a larger purpose. At points, her work in track and field felt insignificant, compared to other things going on in the world. That feeling got even louder one summer evening in 2014, back in her hometown of Ferguson, Missouri.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF Michael Brown's death are well known by now: The black 18-year-old was walking home in Ferguson when a struggle ensued, and a white police officer shot him six times. Brown died on the street, inciting weeks of protests in Ferguson -- protests against the death of an unarmed teenager and against a system that allowed the officer to continue working.

The week of Brown's death was a blur for Berry. She doesn't remember what city she was training in. All she remembers is she was somewhere other than Missouri and needed to get back home -- to her town and her family. She jumped on a plane and went back to Ferguson.

"I walked the streets, everybody was walking and protesting, and you could just feel the tension," she said. "My heart was broken. Here is this young man -- another young man -- that's just killed, unarmed and killed. It made me question, 'Why is this becoming a thing?' Why are these men with guns so ready and willing to just kill a kid or anybody that's unarmed? It made me question a lot about the system here and why was it OK. Why was the police officer still getting paid?"

Berry flashed back to her time living in Ferguson. She remembered her uncle coming home from playing basketball with his friends at the park and telling her grandmother the police had followed him home. At the time, Berry hadn't thought much of it. Now it all felt different.

She thought of her son, 10 years old at the time and going to school in Ferguson. One day he would be older and walking the same streets in the same town.

"It definitely woke me up," she said. "I just had to look at myself and say, 'This could be my child. This could be my brother. This could be my uncle.'"

That weekend Berry spent in Ferguson lodged itself into her memory. It was one event that set her on a path of education that led her to the Pan American podium with her fist raised.

The year after Brown's death, Berry moved from Illinois to Oxford, Mississippi, where the next chapter of her education began. Taking after her father, Berry took it upon herself to learn more about black history and the systemic problems people who look like her have historically faced in the United States.

She started reading more, noticing more. When a black coworker at Insomnia Cookies complained that people who had ordered cookies would look out the window, see a black man and be afraid to open the door, Berry listened. She paid more attention to how the media talked about people of color. She posted on Instagram, proud to rock her natural hair.

In Oxford, she and her boyfriend of four years, Brandon Dennis, attended a Freedom School on Saturday mornings. Freedom Schools were started during the Civil Rights movement as free schools for African Americans to promote social and economic equality. Some still exist, and one of Dennis' teachers at the time invited the pair to try it out.

Each week, they learned about important black figures in history or systemic issues that affect African Americans, such as housing discrimination and mass incarceration.

Something inside Berry started to shift. At a time when she didn't fully understand her purpose in her sport -- when she wanted to quit and lead a normal life -- she started to see something bigger. She started to rediscover her "why."

"It was a turning point for me mentally, emotionally and, honestly, physically," she said of going to the Freedom School. "It made me want to stay healthy and just up my game. Because the people who came before me were so powerful. They were survivors. So who am I not to survive, when I honestly have it easier than them?"

ON THE WEST bank of the Mississippi River, beneath a canopy of sweeping tree branches, the white columned house of the Whitney Plantation rises two stories above the Louisiana dirt. This house in Edgard, formerly a slave plantation, is now a museum that sheds light on how African Americans suffered there.

Dennis had been telling Berry for months they needed to go. Finally, the timing worked out: Berry traveled to Baton Rouge for a track meet, and the couple drove an extra 50 miles to visit the plantation. They were nervous -- but craved a better understanding of their history.

"It was scary to go back to a place where your people were whipped and killed and beaten," Berry said. "That's scary. Most people don't want to face that. That's not comfortable. It's really uncomfortable."

Still, Berry knew this was important. Of course she had learned about slavery before, had understood it at least on a surface level. But to walk grounds where it happened, to put herself in a space where she could smell and touch the history -- that was different.

"It's the people who died that inspire me, not only the people living." Gwen Berry

As the two walked through the rooms and read the plaques on the wall, the stories got harder and harder to stomach. They read one quote from a female slave and mourning the loss of her children who had been taken from her and lamenting that she didn't know where they were.

"After she read that, [Berry] got pretty emotional," Dennis said. "She was basically just saying how messed up this was, how these people could do that to anybody, regardless of color. How could you do something like that and be OK with it?"

It was a jarring day for Berry -- one of education and also a visceral lesson in what her ancestors had been through.

She distilled that feeling into renewed energy for her sport. Not only did she have a better understanding of where she came from and the sacrifices made so that she, an African-American woman, could play a sport. But also, another piece of her "why" clicked into place.

"I really don't think people understand what African people went through in this country to still be here," she said. "It's the people who died that inspire me, not only the people living."

Honoring her ancestors -- and emulating their strength -- felt like something that could motivate her, even on the days she wanted to quit.

Berry had always admired that when her father came back from Iraq in December 2005, despite the hardships he'd endured, he immediately wanted to help kids. (He coaches football and track at McCluer North High School in the St. Louis area). Michael made it a point to mentor the next generation of black youth. His ancestors, like the ones Berry learned about at the plantation, had fought for the generations that came after them.

The chance to follow in their footsteps seemed like the purpose Berry had been searching for.

IN THE DAYS leading up to the Pan American Games last month, all these epiphanies started to feel fresh in Berry's mind. The day before she was set to compete in Peru was the five-year anniversary of Brown's death in Ferguson.

Five years had passed, but it still felt like an open wound. Berry had another conversation with Dennis in the days leading up to the competition about how upset it still made her. She reiterated that one day, that could be her son walking home. Derrick is 15 now, much closer to the age Brown was when he died.

The conversation with Dennis that night turned to the national anthem. The two had been talking about the public school system, how it was strange that minorities were made to memorize a song that didn't represent them. Although "The Star-Spangled Banner" didn't become the national anthem until 1931, after slavery was abolished, the song was written at a time when blacks were enslaved.

"['The Star-Spangled Banner'] came out of 1814, and black people were still enslaved until 1865," Dennis said. "Land of the free, home of the brave -- do they include minority people? Because black people were considered three-fifths of a person at the time."

Before each competition, Berry writes a letter to herself to read between throws. She has struggled before with anxiety in the arena, and the notes serve as a grounding mechanism, a reminder of why she does what she does and a list of things she wants to remember: technical cues or prompts to relax and breathe.

But before her turn at the Pan Am Games, she also wrote a reminder of all she has learned in recent years. She wanted to remember whom she was competing for.

"Your ancestors died for you to do this," she wrote. "Being hung because you want to be free? That's hard. Throwing a ball? That's easy, bro. That's easy."

Berry stepped into the arena that day and threw the hammer 74.62 meters. That earned her a gold medal and a trip to the podium.

In all the buildup to this moment -- all the studying, the trips to the Freedom School and the Louisiana plantation, the news coverage of the anniversary of Brown's death, the times when she wanted to quit her sport but came back to it because she was searching for a bigger purpose -- Berry hadn't envisioned raising her fist. It wasn't planned or orchestrated. It simply felt right in the moment.

"At the last part -- 'land of the free and home of the brave' -- something just came over me," she said. "It made me want to say, like, 'OK, this is a great country, this is a great land, but as Americans, are we really standing for what the anthem says?' And I don't think right now we are."

Soon afterward, Berry did an interview in which she was quoted as saying that there were injustices in America that needed to be talked about and a "president who's making it worse." That made the rounds on cable news shows and the internet, fanning the flames of an already contentious political scene in 2019. Although Berry stands by her assertion, she saw her demonstration as more than that. She meant it as a protest of the issues she sees as larger than any single president: housing discrimination, the trend of white police officers killing unarmed black people, daily racial micro-aggressions, public schools that don't teach enough black history.

This falls in line with other instances of athlete demonstrations, such as when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the 1968 Olympic podium. (After being kicked out of the 1968 Games, Smith and Carlos were named to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame's class of 2019 this week.) Typically, yes, the Black Power fist has been a protest of what is. But Berry also saw the movement as a tribute to what has been: the tragedies her ancestors have persevered through, the people who have come before her and the sacrifices that have been made so that she, a black woman, could throw a hammer for her career.

And, of course, the tribute extended a little closer to home.

"My dad was away from me for years, and he came back alive, which I'm very grateful for because people that he fought with died," she said. "It's definitely personal. Someone was taken away from my life for years when I'm young. At least [I can] stand for what he fought for. And as a country, I'm sure a lot of people agree: We're not standing for what the American anthem represents, not at all."

Michael was the first person Berry called when she got off the podium, when the adrenaline of what she'd done settled down. Amid the "patriotism" debate swirling on the internet -- she had disrespected the flag, the anthem, the country -- Berry wanted to talk to her favorite veteran.

They talked for an hour. Michael told her how proud he was and said that no matter what punishment she'd receive, he would support her.

"That's what I went to war for: for us to have that right of freedom of expression and freedom of speech," Michael said. "And for you to express yourself right then and there, I think that's the perfect thing to do."

Dennis, who maybe was the only one with an inkling that something might happen, felt the same. He and his mom were watching from home, and as Berry stepped up to receive her medal, he flashed back to the conversation they'd had days earlier. He was surprised when he saw her fist come up -- but as soon as he saw it, it made sense.

"To me, she's an icon for doing that," he said. "And for accepting the stuff you have to sacrifice to do that. She's a revolutionary to me."

The weeks that followed were more high-stress than the moment of demonstration itself. Berry waited for the U.S. Olympic committee to deliberate her case and decide on a punishment. The official Olympic rulebook bans any kind of "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda."

In mid-August, the committee handed 12-month probationary periods to both Berry and Imboden but no further punishment, a penalty that Berry said was "fair."

THINGS HAVE DIED down in the six weeks since Berry raised her fist, but she remains amazed by the attention her fist brought.

"I really didn't think it would get as big as it did or be as powerful as it was," she said. "As a human being, you have a lot of power, and you don't really know it until you do something that creates something, and they say, 'Oh, wow, I do have a lot of power. My voice does matter.'"

That's the next step Berry will grapple with: how to use her voice. She understands the inherent limitations of raising her fist. Doing so doesn't make legislative change or quell racism. Instead, she views her platform as a jumping-off point.

Much like it took her a while to understand where she came from, learn about black history and settle into her identity as a black woman in America, she's taking the time now to decide how to use her newfound power, how to project her voice.

One day she hopes to own her own Freedom School where she can teach the next generation of African Americans about their history. She's researching organizations with which she can make an impact.

Change is in the little things too: When someone asks why she raised her fist, Berry talks about the issues she's passionate about. When her 19-year-old brother talks to her about something he wants to buy, she encourages him to save his money so he can purchase a house one day instead. Berry has long been inspired by late Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, who preached black ownership and African Americans investing in their communities. She wants to carry the torch of that philosophy. Each time she's home, she has a list of black-owned businesses she visits.

Meanwhile, the question on everybody's mind -- will she raise her fist again? -- isn't a priority for Berry. She made her mark with her solo demonstration. Now it's about action.

"I feel like if I put my fist in the air every time I win a medal, it would get boring," she said. "So instead of just doing that, I need to do more. I definitely had a lot of speaking engagements come up from what I've done. I definitely want to take those after the season, speak my piece and try to figure out what is my position in this country and this world? Like, what can I do for the minorities to make it better for them?"

That's the question that keeps her going in her sport. It's not about money or medals or attention.

Instead, she has caught a glimpse of the ripples she can start. With her fist or with her mind, she wants to keep making waves.

"I get to inspire different people," she said. "When you work a 9-to-5, you really don't get to touch other people or inspire anybody, right? So that's what I get from it. I'm broke as hell, but I can inspire a lot of people. Like Nipsey Hussle said, that's the best currency you can give anybody: inspiration. And even though I ain't getting a lot of currency, I can give inspiration."