On the contact list in Raven Saunders’ cell phone, Herbert Johnson is known as “Old Man.”
“When I face tough decisions or I’m just having problems, he’s just that go-to person I can call,” Saunders said.
If the relationship between Raven Saunders — the 20-year-old Burke High School graduate who will represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August — and veteran Lowcountry coach Herbert Johnson seems well beyond that of pupil and coach, that’s because it is.
For Raven, whose biological father was never a part of her life, the 60-year-old Johnson is the closest thing to a father she’s known.
“I tell anyone, to me, Herbert Johnson is my dad,” said Raven, a sophomore at Ole Miss and three-time NCAA champion in the shot put. “The things he’s done for me in high school and even since I left, it’s something really only a father or parent would do for someone. He didn’t have to do it, but he did.”
Johnson, who has two daughters and a son (and four step-sons) of his own, considers Raven a third daughter.
“When my wife and I were married, Raven was out there dancing with our kids,” Johnson said. “When she comes over to our house, she’s just one of the kids.”
Their relationship began six years ago, when Raven was a freshman at Burke High School. One of Saunders’ teammates on the track and field team, Darius Bowen, called Johnson and asked him if he’d come watch him throw the shot put at a meet on James Island.
Johnson, who had coached Bowen at his own Herbert Johnson Track and Field Academy, agreed and showed up at the meet. He noticed a girl from Burke in the shot put circle, but didn’t think much of her until an official announced the distance of her throw.
“Thirty-two feet, eight inches.”
Johnson stood up straight.
“I said, ‘32 feet?’” he recalled. “So asked a coach what grade she was in, and they said ninth grade. And I said, ‘Are you sure she’s in the correct age?’ And they said yes.
“Well, 40 feet for a high school girl is the first milestone you want to clear, and this young lady was just standing there and throwing the ball 32 feet already.”
Johnson approached Raven and told her, “Young lady, if you keep throwing, you will eventually be a state champion.”
Little did Johnson suspect that he would be the one to help her reach that goal, and many others.
Johnson, a native of Charleston and a graduate of the old C.A. Brown High School, attended Baptist College and ran some track there. He got into coaching when the relay team at his old high school needed some help, and in a 40-year career has coached all over the Lowcountry, teaching hundreds of kids at schools such as C.A. Brown, Burke, Trident Academy (where he was one of the first African-American head coaches in SCISA), Denmark-Olar, Orangeburg-Wilkinson, Summerville and at his own track and field acacdemy.
“When I started, I thought I’d have 50 million Olympians,” says Johnson, a big man with a big laugh. “I mean, how hard could it be?”
Johnson might never have found his Olympian if not for a second phone call from Bowen. This time, the young man said the track coach at Burke and his wife were expecting twin babies, and the coach would not be able to attend practice for a while. Would Johnson help?
Johnson agreed, and when the Burke coach came back, they decided to divide up the throwers. One would take the boys, and the other would take the girls. Johnson knew which group he wanted.
“I had the advantage there, because I’d been watching Raven and I knew she could throw,” Johnson said. “In the back of my mind, I figured he’d take the boys, and he did. I’m like, ‘Yes!’. Now I had the chance to work with this girl who had so much potential.”
Thus their relationship was forged, on hot afternoons and Saturday mornings at Stoney Field, where Johnson found and dug up the old throwing circle overgrown with grass; at Harmon Field, where Johnson measured off a throwing circle in the parking lot for Raven; and at the track at The Citadel, where Bulldogs coach Jody Huddleston agreed to let them practice.
Often, it was just the two of them. And at the start, Raven could not even run the 200 meters Johnson asked her to run. But they kept working.
Said Johnson, “I’d go home and tell my wife, ‘You won’t believe what is happening.’”
Toward the end of her freshman year, Raven was throwing 38 feet, 6 inches by just sort of crouching and throwing the shot. But that wasn’t enough for her, and two days before the state meet, she came to Johnson with a request. She wanted to change her technique to the “glide,” in which the thrower takes a couple of steps before heaving the shot. She’d seen shot put great Michelle Carter do it on YouTube.
“We’ve got two days until state meet, and you want to glide?” Johnson said. “I’ve learned that the fastest way to get somebody to stop doing something that’s crazy is to let them do it. They see its crazy and stop doing it.
“But when she threw with the glide, I saw the result and said, ‘That’s close enough, we’ll glide.’”
She won the state title with a throw of 40 feet, 10 inches that year, and won again as a sophomore. History repeated itself during her junior year when, three days before the state meet, she came to Johnson and told her she wanted to change techniques again. This time, it was the “spin” move, in which the thrower faces the back of the circle and “spins” a couple of times before releasing the shot.
“She got out on the sidewalk by the baseball field and did the spin, and it went about 42 feet,” Johnson said. “So we went with it.”
But at the state meet as a junior, Raven fouled on her spin throws and finally had to settle for a “safe” throw of 35 feet, 6 inches, good for another state title but ultimately unsatisfactory.
One summer day before her senior year, Saunders and Johnson sat side by a side on a bench at The Citadel track, sweaty and frustrated.
“The ball wasn’t going 35 feet,” Johnson said. “I looked at her and said, ‘You know I’m too crazy to quit.’ And she said, ‘You know I am too.’”
Johnson reviewed what they had been doing, and decided Raven was overloaded with too much information on too many techniques.
“The fault was mine,” he said. “In reading and getting information, I didn’t realize there was more than one technique for spinning. We’d start down one road, then I’d read another article and start imposing that. We ended up with a jumble of techniques, so we had to go through and find the one that suited her best.”
From there, Raven’s throws took off. In December, she set the national high school record of 53 feet, 8 inches at an indoor meet in Raleigh.
“People said it was impossible, probably a miss-mark, because a 10-foot improvement in a year was impossible,” Johnson said.
But she wasn’t done. The ball went 56 feet, 8-1/4 inches at the Taco Bell Classic in April, followed by 56 feet, 7½ inches at the New Balance Outdoor Championships and 55 feet, 8-1/4 inches at the state championships, breaking the state record by 11 feet.
The rest, as they say, is history. Raven has won three NCAA titles at Southern Illinois and Ole Miss, and her career best is 19.33 meters (an NCAA-record 63 feet, 5 inches) heading into the Olympics.
“Throwing-wise, he’s the reason I am where I am,” Raven said of Johnson. “I tell him all the time how thankful and grateful I am that I’m here. He’s just happy to have played a part in it.”
On Aug. 12, Johnson and friend John Washington will settle into their assigned seats on the couch in Johnson’s living room to watch Raven throw in the Olympics.
Sometime after it’s over, she’ll dial up the “Old Man” on her cell phone and tell him all about it.