When she was still at Burke High School, Raven Saunders used to call up YouTube videos of Michelle Carter on her laptop.
Carter, the American record-holder and a two-time Olympian, is a “glider” in shot-put parlance, and was a perfect role model for the younger Raven.
“As a glider in high school, Michelle was somebody I looked at a lot,” Saunders says.
On Thursday at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Saunders will find herself competing with her one-time role model for a spot on Team USA in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero.
Carter, 30, is ranked first and the 20-year-old Saunders third among America’s top female shot-putters going into the Trials. In between them is another Saunders’ role model, 25-year-old Tia Brooks, a former NCAA champ and 2012 Olympian.
The top three finishers in Thursday night’s finals will make the U.S. team.
It’s a position Saunders could have hardly imagined just four years ago, when as a junior at Burke she had yet to convert to the “spin” technique, and had yet to throw 50 feet. As a Bulldog senior, Saunders ended up breaking Carter’s indoor and outdoor high school records with throws of 56 feet, 7 1/2 inches and 56-8 1/2, respectively.
“As a young athlete, I had a great appreciation for them and really looked to them,” said Saunders, now a three-time NCAA champ as a sophomore at Ole Miss. “Now it’s mind-blowing and kind of a shock to see myself among them, and to go out and compete with them.”
Saunders has certainly proved that she belongs in such august company. Her NCAA-record throw of 19.33 meters (63-5) at the NCAA outdoor championships this year places her only behind Carter (20.21 meters, 66-3 1/2) among U.S. throwers. Brooks, who like Carter is a professional sponsored by Nike, has a best throw of 19.73 meters (64-8 3/4).
Among U.S. women at the Trials, only Felisha Johnson (19.26 meters) and Jeneva Stevens (19.11 meters) also have broken 19 meters this year.
At a warm-up meet at Southern Illinois two weeks ago, Saunders threw 18.94 meters, her second-best outdoor throw ever.
“I’ve been basically focusing on my technique the last few meets,” she said. “That has played such a huge, crucial role in my improvement. Executing technically is what I need to do to get that shot to fly far.”
Win-Win for Quinn
Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, a Fort Dorchester graduate and redshirt freshman at Kentucky, finds herself in a win-win situation heading to the Olympic Trials in the 100-meter hurdles.
Already assured a place on the Puerto Rico Olympic team, Camacho-Quinn could earn a spot on the U.S. team with a top-three finish. The hurdles’ preliminary rounds are set for Thursday, with the semi-finals and finals on Friday.
Like Saunders, Camacho-Quinn finds herself competing with past role models, including American record-holder Kendra Harrison and two-time Olympics hurdler Lolo Jones.
Harrison, 23 and a former Kentucky Wildcat herself, has become a training partner and mentor to Camacho-Quinn, who won the NCAA outdoor championship this year.
“I train with Kendra every day, and that’s been a big help,” said Camacho-Quinn, who ranks ninth among American hurdlers at the Trials with a time of 12.69 seconds (Harrison is first at 12.24). “So seeing somebody that fast will not be new to me.”
Camacho-Quinn’s profile has risen dramatically since her NCAA title.
“It’s been a lot of interviews, honestly,” said Quinn, the sister of NFL star Robert Quinn, also a Fort Dorchester graduate.
In 2014, Jasmine Quinn was named The Post and Courier’s All-Lowcountry overall athlete of the year after winning eight gold medals in two years at the state track championships. That same year, Saunders was named the All-Lowcountry track and field athlete of the year after setting national records in the shot put.
The Lowcountry pair could be sharing the spotlight again in Rio.
“All her hard work and talent, I have a lot of respect for that,” Saunders said of Quinn. “We both basically are the same in that aspect -- young athletes who know what we want and go for it.”
Regardless of what happens in Eugene or Rio, both Saunders and Camacho-Quinn have big futures in track and field beyond 2016, their coaches say.
“What’s Raven’s ceiling? I get asked that all the time,” said Ole Miss coach Connie Price-Smith, also the coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic team.”
“I don’t know the answer to that yet,” she said. “I have no idea of what her ceiling is. I will just sit back and watch and wait to see what’s going to happen next.”
At her first NCAA championships, Camacho-Quinn earned All-America status in the 100 hurdles, the 200 meters and the 4x100 relay.
“Jasmine is a first team All-American in three events at her first NCAA Championships ever,” said Kentucky coach Eldrick Floréal said. “That goes a long way, and people are going to hate me for saying this but she’s nowhere near scratching the surface. She’s much more gifted than that. She can be a megastar in track and field.”