Athlete’s biggest fans determined to get to Rio Saunders’ family turns to fundraising so they can cheer at Games

Burke High School graduate Raven Saunders is hoping her family can accompany her to the Rio Olympics next month. (Petre Thomas/Ole Miss Athletics)

Raven Saunders plans to depart for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 2, with her trip to Brazil and stay in the Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca paid for by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But for Saunders’ mother and younger sister, the 4,500-mile trip to Rio is a bit more complicated. Like other families of Olympic athletes, mom Clarissa and sister Tanzania — as well as an aunt and uncle — are on their own when it comes to traveling to Rio and finding a place to stay during the Olympic Games. And for footing the bill, as well.

“(My mom) has been kind of stressed about it,” said Saunders, a Burke High School graduate and three-time NCAA champion in the shot put. “But I told her, things will work out. It always has, and that’s why I try not to stress about a lot of things. I know if you leave it in God’s hands, things will work out.”

Having her family in Rio would mean a lot, Saunders said.

“My mom says regardless of whatever, she is going to be down there,” Saunders said. “So, having family will mean so much to me since they have been there from my first meet in the backyard freshman year of high school to the biggest stage in all of track and field. That means so much. My younger sister, now being a thrower, will see what her future will have in store if she just keeps working and pushing forward.”

Fundraising efforts are underway to help the Saunders’ family make it to Rio.

Raven’s aunt, Tonetta Watson-Coleman, has set up a GoFundMe.com account for the family. And the Krispy Kreme store on Savannah Highway in Charleston — Clarissa Saunders has worked for Krispy Kreme for almost 20 years — is helping to raise money.

On Wednesday, July 27, the store will donate $1 for every dozen doughnuts sold, and will reward any other donations with a free doughnut.

“We hope the public will come out and support us so that we can give her mom a nice plane trip to Rio to cheer on her daughter,” said Courtney Hicks, marketing fundraising coordinator for Krispy Kreme in Myrtle Beach.

As of Wednesday, the GoFundMe account had raised about $2,585 toward a goal of $10,000.

“Raven’s mother is a single parent and has been her biggest supporter,” Watson-Coleman posted on the account. “She has provided unconditional love, support and encouragement throughout Raven’s life and sacrificed to ensure she had what she needed to succeed.”

A trip to Rio for the Games will cost thousands of dollars. Flights to Rio during the first week of August — the Olympic Games are set for Aug. 5-21 — are running close to $3,000 per person, according to expedia.com. And then there’s the cost of hotels, food, incidentals and extra tickets to the Games. Athletes receive two free tickets to their events.

Help from the U.S. Olympic Committee for families is limited, Raven Saunders said.

“From what I hear, they have some programs that will work with family members to help them find places to stay, or ways to get there,” said Saunders, a sophomore at Ole Miss. “But for the most part, it is up to athletes and their families to raise the money and make those things happen.”

Saunders’ teammate on the shot put team, Felisha Johnson, also has family trying to raise money for Rio.

“I’m going to try to scrape up some money and try to get there,” Felisha’s father, Ronald Johnson, told the Indianapolis Star. “It only happens one time in your life, you know.”

Deanna Marie Price, a former teammate of Saunders’ at Southern Illinois and an Olympic hammer thrower, has raised more than $16,000 on her GoFundMe account to help her parents make the trip.

According to the Washington Post, more than 100 Olympic athletes have set up GoFundMe accounts, raising more than $660,000 to pay for gear, for family trips to Rio and for training expenses.

On the USA Wrestling team, 13 of the 14 wrestlers who qualified for Rio have crowdfunding sites.

The Lowcountry has stepped for Raven Saunders before, donating more than $6,000 to help her travel to Eugene, Oregon, for the USA Junior Nationals in 2014.