When Raven Saunders announced the end of her college career in February, there was some doubt about the future of one of the world's top female shot-putters.
By the age of 20, the Charleston native and Burke High School graduate had won four NCAA championships at Southern Illinois and Ole Miss, and represented the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics.
But earlier this year, Saunders left Ole Miss and college athletics, citing "personal and medical issues" and a "need to focus on myself."
"I didn't think she'd give up the sport. But I was concerned about it," said Herbert Johnson, her longtime coach and a father figure to Saunders. "I didn't know which way she was thinking."
Saunders' thinking became clear last weekend at the War Eagle Invitational, a college track and field meet at Auburn University. Saunders wanted to keep her return low-key, so there was no pre-event publicity.
But the result spoke loudly.
Saunders announced her return to competitive shot put with a heave of 19.56 meters (64 feet, 2¼ inches).
That's the top throw in the world this year.
In other words, she's back — and she's turned pro.
Leaving Ole Miss
By the time Saunders left Ole Miss on Feb. 6, the pressures had been piling up for a while.
Raven's life had been a non-stop spin cycle since she left Burke for Southern Illinois in 2014. She won two NCAA titles as a freshman at Southern Illinois, then traveled to Alberta, Canada, and Eugene, Oregon to win gold medals that summer.
After her freshman year, Saunders transferred to Ole Miss to follow coaches Connie Price-Smith and John Smith, and won the NCAA outdoor title in 2016. That summer, she went to Rio de Janiero with Team USA and finished fifth in the Olympic Games.
Then it was back to Ole Miss, where Raven won her fourth NCAA title at the 2017 indoor championships. That summer, she claimed her first U.S. championship with a throw of 19.76 meters (64-10), the fourth-best throw in U.S. history. Then, it was off to London for the world championships, where she placed 10th.
By February, it was enough.
"It got to a point where, for the sake of myself and the things I wanted to do later on, I had to take time off and take a break," Saunders said this week. "I had been going so long, and so hard for so long, since high school."
"I really needed to take that time to really focus on myself and clear my head, straighten out my mental state."
Saunders also faced the pressure of increased expectations.
"When you are an Olympian, there's more on your plate than just throwing that ball," Johnson said. "There's an expectation of excellence on you. Everyone wants to see a massive throw every time, and that's just not possible.
"She had some growing pains in understanding that."
Home to Charleston
Saunders returned to Charleston in February and stayed at home with her mom and sister. Meditation and yoga, and not much else, were on the schedule.
"It gave me a chance to reground myself and remind myself of who I was," Saunders said. "I really took the chance to breathe and learn more about myself and what I wanted my next step to be."
Conversations with Johnson helped clarify matters.
"He's pretty much like my father, so I talked to him a lot," Saunders said. "Being able to hear positive words of encouragement meant a lot to me. He's someone who's been there from the very beginning, so to hear the things he had to say about what I needed to, it was great."
Saunders is 13 credits short of her degree from Ole Miss, and she plans to earn those hours over the summer and next fall.
"My main thing is, I want that degree," Johnson said. "That was our main focus when this all started, to get that degree. The world records and the Olympics and all that will end someday, and she'll still have to eat."
After a few weeks at home, Saunders began to feel the itch to compete.
"I started to feel a lot more like myself," she said. "And I knew I didn't want to take too much time off. I knew it wasn't too late, I could still pursue that pro career."
Saunders signed with track and field agent John Nubani, and last weekend's meet at Auburn was her debut as a professional, even though it was a college meet. Her first pro meet will be in Shanghai, China on May 12 in the IAAF's Diamond League.
The Diamond League is a series of elite track and field events around the world, and Saunders will compete with top shot putters.
Saunders' throw of 19.56 meters at Auburn shows she's ready.
"If anybody told me she'd come back after that time off as the world leader, I would have laughed," Johnson said.
As a pro, Saunders can earn a living from prize money, appearance fees and endorsements, where her "Hulk" alter ego could pay off. And she'll still be eligible for the Olympics, where three more appearances aren't out of the question. She'll be just 32 by the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.
It's the latest step on a journey that began for Saunders when she practiced from a shot-put circle drawn on a sidewalk at Harmon Park across the street from Burke.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs since I started at Burke," Saunders said. "It seemed so far-fetched, and that's why it means so much to me. I really hope I can inspire kids who are in the same shoes I was in just a few years ago."
Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC