It was Herbert Johnson who first saw something special in Raven Saunders. But not even the veteran track and field coach, who’s worked for 40 years in the state of South Carolina, saw this coming.
Burke High School graduate Raven Saunders is aiming to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the shot put. Here’s her road to Rio de Janeiro:
NCAA indoor championship Friday-Saturday, Birmingham, Ala.
SEC outdoor championship
May 12-14, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
NCAA outdoor championship
June 8-11, Eugene, Ore.
U.S. Olympic Trials
July 1-10, Eugene, Ore.
Aug. 5-21, Rio de Janeiro
“I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” Johnson said.
There’s no doubt that Saunders, a Burke High School graduate who is all of 19 years old, is ahead of schedule.
The Mississippi sophomore is aiming for her third straight NCAA shot put title this weekend at the indoor championships in Birmingham, Ala. She’s the overwhelming favorite, having turned in the 12 best throws in the nation during the indoor season, including a massive throw of 63 feet, 11/4 inches last month, the best ever by a female collegian and the second-best throw in the world this year.
Next on Raven’s schedule: The SEC and NCAA outdoor championships, and then the Olympics.
“With this year being an Olympic year, I feel like I’ve been a lot more determined and focused to give it my best shot,” said Saunders, a 2014 graduate of Burke. “Making that 2016 team, that’s my goal.”
From practicing on the sidewalk next to Harmon Field across the street from Burke, to the shot put circle at João Havelange Stadium for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — it would be an amazing journey, and one that’s entirely within Saunders’ grasp.
“It’d be huge, not just for Raven, but for the whole community, Charleston and Burke High School,” said Johnson, who coached Saunders at Burke and remains a trusted advisor. “The Olympics, that’s the pinnacle. And Raven did not come from one of the premier programs in Charleston County. To have her do it, to reach the pinnacle, it would show everybody on every level that if you commit yourself to something and sacrifice for it, it’s possible.”
Saunders once dreamed of making the Burke varsity basketball team.
“I had hoop dreams,” she laughs. “I first picked up the shot put as something to help with basketball. I didn’t think much of it, but I had been playing basketball since third grade. I was actually thinking of moving to Florida with a cousin before I started with the shot put. So it gave me a reason to stay back home and train.”
It was at a track meet on James Island that Johnson first spotted his prize pupil. He’d been asked to check out a sprinter, but a Burke freshman caught his eye from the shot put circle.
“When I first started working with Raven, I saw her as being a good, solid thrower by the time she got to college,” Johnson said. “I thought she’d be throwing maybe 47 feet by the time she left high school. But she kept progressing, and she was really determined to do something special. That’s when I saw she had a chance to be great.”
Johnson helped Raven move from the “glide” technique — in which the shot-putter glides across the circle — to the “spin,” where the athlete spins twice across the circle before the release.
The transition was difficult at first, but by her senior year, Saunders had set the national high school indoor (56-7½) and outdoor (56-8½) records, both held by two-time Olympian Michelle Carter. She shattered the state record by 11 feet (55-8) and was named the Gatorade national female track and field athlete of the year.
The Charleston community rallied to Saunders’ support that summer, raising more than $6,000 to help send her to the U.S. Junior Nationals in Eugene, Oregon. Families from rival Bishop England High School donated more than $1,000 to the cause.
Saunders’ super senior year led to a scholarship offer from Southern Illinois, where the track and field team was renowned for its throwing program. Head coach Connie Price-Smith was a four-time Olympian in the shot put, and she will coach the U.S. women’s team in the Olympics this year. Assistant coach John Smith (Price-Smith’s husband) produced eight NCAA champions and 52 All-Americans in throwing events at SIU.
Saunders was an immediate success, winning the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships as a freshman — the first freshman in NCAA history to win shot put titles. Her path forward seemed set.
“Hopefully, this could be the path to me being the first person to with eight straight championships in one event,” Saunders said after her outdoor title last June.
But little more than a month later, startling news broke — Saunders’ coaches were leaving Southern Illinois for Ole Miss.
The news caught Saunders by surprise.
“I was really shocked,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think or say, and I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. I thought I was being pranked.”
Price-Smith and her husband were hired at Ole Miss on July 21, 2015, which didn’t leave Saunders a lot of time before the new school year started.
“I wanted to follow my coaches,” she said. “But it was so late in the school year. It was really a rush to make sure I could get down here, It took me about a month at Ole Miss for me to feel like I was settled in.”
Once she settled in, Raven took off.
Her indoor season “is the greatest indoor shot put season in NCAA history,” according to Ole Miss sports information.
“I think staying with my coaches was a big key,” she said. “It’s my second year now in their program, and naturally you are going to progress and get better. And then you add in the mental determination factor — I always want to get stronger and better.”
Saunders has been the top female shot-putter in the U.S. so far this year. Four other American athletes — all professionals — have thrown at least 60 feet this year and are likely to be her top competitors at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July in Eugene. That group includes Dani Bunch, Brittany Smith, Jeneva Stevens and Felisha Johnson.
Until then, Saunders will try to keep it simple.
“Throw far,” she likes to say. “Win big.”