Clarissa Saunders knew the secret for nearly a week, and it pained her to keep it from her daughter, Burke High School senior Raven Saunders.
In the end, mom was able to suppress the urge to spill the secret until Wednesday morning.
Raven Saunders, Burke's record-setting shot putter and discus thrower, arrived at a special gathering at the school Wednesday for a surprise party and announcement. There, Raven was finally told that she has been named the Gatorade girls track and field athlete of the year for the entire nation, putting her in the company of sports stars such as Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter, who won the award in their respective sports.
"They called me last Thursday and asked me to keep it a secret, but gosh it was so hard because I was so excited for her," said Clarissa Saunders. "It almost slipped out a few times and I had to be careful not to talk about it with other people. I'm glad it was today because I don't know how much longer I could have held it inside. I am so proud of her."
For her part, Raven Saunders thought her mom had put together some sort of post-graduation party at the school.
"I was trying to figure out what was going on because my mom has been planning something, and I just thought maybe it was a going away party for college or something. I didn't expect this," Raven said.
"This is mind-blowing. When I started in this sport I wanted to be one of the best, but I never thought I could reach the level that I am now. I've really committed myself to being the best and I guess it feels nice to see the hard work pay off."
Family members and friends, coaches and teachers, media members and several hundred young day campers filled the Burke auditorium to watch Raven formally accept the prestigious award. Raven's coach, Herbert Johnson, gave an emotional speech and called Saunders "the greatest athlete in South Carolina."
"I love the fact that they had so many of the younger kids here today," said Saunders. "It gives them a firsthand chance to see what goes on and what successful people look like. I started out just like them and I think they see today what can be achieved through hard work."
Burke principal Maurice Cannon said Raven sets an important example for those young kids, and her classmates at Burke High School.
"She's a huge inspiration for the school and the students," Cannon said. "She embodies the student who doesn't give up. It wasn't always easy for her academically, and through her struggles she just had that Bulldog tenacity to keep going and achieve her dreams."
The Gatorade award also acknowledges academic achievement and community involvement. Saunders graduated from Burke with a B average and devoted time to SkillsUSA, a national youth empowerment program.
Saunders is just the third athlete from South Carolina to win a Gatorade national award, joining former Northwestern High School quarterback Justin Worley (2010), who's now at Tennessee, and Daniel High softball player Carley Hoover (2013), who is at Stanford.
Saunders will attend college at Southern Illinois and hopes to one day make the USA Olympic team.
"That will be a great day and event for us," Cannon said. "We all believe she will accomplish that goal, and she's shown she is willing to put in the work. What a great day that will be for Burke."
Saunders set the national prep record in the shot put at the Taco Bell Classic in April, with a toss of 56 feet, 8.25 inches. She won the New Balance Nationals Indoor championship and also won the New Balance Nationals Outdoor title, nearly setting another national record with a heave of 56 feet, 7.5 inches.
In May, Saunders shattered the South Carolina state record in the shot put at 55-8.25, and also won the state gold medal in the discus finals.
On July 5-6, Saunders will travel to Eugene, Ore., for the 2014 Junior Nationals, where she will attempt to earn a spot on Team USA for the World Junior Championships.
A thrill of a different kind will come July 15-16 when she travels to Hollywood for the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year banquet, to be followed by a trip to the ESPYs. There, she will walk the red carpet with all manner of sports celebrities at ESPN's annual awards show.
"Oh my gosh, I can't believe that I'm actually going to experience what I've only seen on television," Saunders said. "I can't even wrap my head around the fact that I am actually going. It's really crazy to think about."
The Gatorade Player of the Year program annually recognizes one winner in the District of Columbia and each of the 50 states that sanction high school football, girls volleyball, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball, and boys and girls track and field, and awards one national player of the year in each sport.
This year celebrates the program's 29th anniversary. In that time, Gatorade has honored more than 13,000 state players of the year and 260 national players of the year, including many of today's top professional athletes, such as Peyton Manning, Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, Kerri Walsh and Derek Jeter.
"This means so much," said Saunders. "To see some of the past winners of this award and to be considered among them, it's incredible to me. It's a great feeling to be on that list now."
Jeff Hartsell contributed to this story.
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