Some 12 hours after earning her spot on Team USA, Raven Saunders was getting fit for her Olympic uniforms.
“I’m about to do team processing,” Saunders said Friday from Eugene, Oregon, where she finished second in the shot put at the Olympic Trials to earn a ticket to next month’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “That’s where you try on your uniforms and learn about the trip, things like that.”
The team-processing session helped Saunders process the idea that Thursday night’s epic battle in the shot put finals at historic Heyward Field had not been some sort of dream. For the first time in U.S. Trials history, seven women cracked the 60-foot mark in the finals.
Saunders, a Burke High School graduate, won her spot on the team with a throw of 19.24 meters (63 feet, 1 1/2 inches) that vaulted her from fourth place -- and out of the running for Team USA -- to second place and into history.
“It’s crazy,” said Saunders, a sophomore at Ole Miss and a three-time NCAA champion. “Honestly, it’s 10 times better than I thought it would be, making my first Olympic team. Setting that goal so early and being able to execute and to be on this team that only comes around every four years -- gosh, it’s amazing.”
Saunders joined one of her heroes -- three-time Olympian Michelle Carter (19.59 meters) -- and fellow Olympic rookie Felisha Johnson (19.23 meters) on Team USA’s shot put squad.
She also joins the short list of Lowcountry Olympians that includes basketball’s Katrina McClain, who graduated from the old St. Andrews High School and played in three Olympics; Baptist College (now Charleston Southern) triple-jumper Charlie Simpkins, who won silver in 1992; Georgetown’s Anthuan Maybank, who won gold in the 4x400-meter relay in 1996; and boxing great Joe Frazier of Beaufort, who won gold in 1964.
Just 20 years old with most of her career in front of her, Saunders said she entered the Trials feeling little pressure.
“Going into the meet, my philosophy was, ‘I have nothing to lose,’” she said. “I’m just a sophomore in college, going against professionals. I mean, this is their money, their bread and butter. So I had to hold nothing back and just go for it.”
Saunders fouled on two of her first three throws in the final. But her second effort, of 18.54 meters (60-10) was enough to get her into the top eight for the final series of three throws. There, she unleashed throws of 18.98 meters (62-3 1/4) and 19.24 meters (63-1 1/2) from a rain-soaked shot put circle.
Now, Saunders’ life will be a whirlwind as she prepares for Rio, where the Olympic Games are set to start on Aug. 5, with the women’s shot put qualifying and finals on Aug. 12. She won’t even have time for a visit to Charleston before heading to Rio.
“It’s been really crazy already,” she said. “My phone has not stopped buzzing yet.”
Saunders says she has no concerns about traveling to Brazil, where health and safety concerns have prompted some athletes -- notably, pro golfers -- to pull out of the Games.
“No, not at all,” she said. “If I get stung by a mosquito, oh well. For me, the next four years are not guaranteed, so you have to take advantage of the opportunity. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime in the lifetime of the opportunity.’
“I have to grab hold of this one regardless of what else is going on.”
Olympic journalists are sure to love her backstory, which includes growing up in Charleston and her ties to Emanuel AME Church (where she was baptized, and where her late grandmother was a member); her discovery of the shot put, and her discovery by coach and mentor Herbert Johnson; and the fund-raising drive, spurred on by the track team at rival Bishop England High School, that helped her travel to the World Juniors in 2014.
For her part, Saunders hopes that young people in Charleston, and her former classmates at Burke, can draw inspiration from her story.
“I hope it means so much,” she said. “I think back to where I was when it all started, where I grew up and how a lot of the kids there have the same background as me. Just getting to this point, it shows that anything in this world is possible if you work for it.
“There are still kids at Burke who saw me at school, saw me practicing and doing drills. I’m not far removed from those kids at Burke, and I hope it motivates them to pursue their dreams.”