Taking a turn for the better

Southern Illinois Salukis Raven Saunders shot put NCAA USATF junior record
Southern Illinois freshman Raven Saunders has the second-best mark among NCAA shot putters this season at 59 feet, 9 3/4 inches, a U.S. junior record. (Photo courtesy of Saluki Media Services)

It wasn’t until she stopped gliding and started spinning that Raven Saunders’ life took a turn for the better.

Make that a turn-and-a-half.

As a high school junior in Charleston, S.C., a couple of years ago, Saunders was a middling shot putter with a best of 42 feet, not nearly far enough to set the hearts of college recruiters racing. Then she told her coach at Burke High School, Herbert Johnson, that she wanted to try the spin, or rotary technique.

At just under 5-foot-5, the spin seemed better suited for her frame.

“I knew she wasn’t going to be able to compete at the college level with the glide,’’ Johnson said. “She’s 5-4 and change. It would be impossible for her to throw the distance she needs. I didn’t see how she was going to throw in the mid-50s with the glide.’’

So, the change was made the summer before her senior year and her personal progress graph has been in ascent ever since.

In short order, she improved by a whopping 11 feet with a spin-propelled throw of 53 feet, 8 inches at an indoor meet in December of 2013, set the national girls’ high school record at 56-8 ¼, earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois, was invited to attend the ESPYs in Los Angeles, won U.S. Juniors and finished second at the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2014 – both at Hayward Field – and uncorked a throw of 61-1 ¼ to win the 2015 NCAA Indoor title.

“It enabled me to do a lot of things I didn’t think were possible,’’ said Saunders, now a freshman at Southern Illinois, where her head coach is four-time Olympian Connie Price-Smith and her throws coach is the boss’ husband, John Smith. “With me being so new to it, it did give me a greater upside. I really took to it because I’m a fast learner.’’

After winning the U.S. junior title in the shot put last summer, Raven Saunders went on to claim a silver medal at the IAAF World Junior Championships at Hayward Field. (TrackTown Photo)

After winning the U.S. junior title in the shot put last summer, Raven Saunders went on to claim a silver medal at the IAAF World Junior Championships at Hayward Field. (TrackTown Photo)

Saunders now has her sights set on a matching pair of championships with a goal of winning the shot put title at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, June 10-13, at Hayward Field, site of two of her best results in 2014.

But just getting to Eugene for the USATF Junior Championships became a story in itself.

Her family did not have the money to send Saunders to Eugene for U.S. Juniors, so a fundraising campaign was started on her behalf. Only a few hundred dollars were raised until a coach at a rival high school in her district elevated the fundraising, 21st century style.

Antony Colizzi at Bishop England High in Charleston started a GoFundMe account for Saunders, with a goal of raising $5,000. Bishop England got the ball rolling by donating $1,000. By the time the account was closed, about $5,300 had been raised, enough to enable Saunders and Johnson to travel to Eugene.

“It meant so much to me,’’ Saunders said.

“They didn’t have to do that,’’ Johnson said of the good folks at Bishop England. “The donations started to come in. It was great. As people got more information, more money would start coming in. I was able to go with her to U.S. Junior Nationals, and it allowed me to go back to World Juniors.’’

By making the U.S. team for World Juniors, Saunders had her travel expenses paid by USATF. She rewarded the governing body by throwing 54-6 ¾ to earn the silver medal behind China’s Tianqian Guo, who took the gold at 58-1 ¼.

Southern Illinois freshman Raven Saunders (right) and senior teammate Ashley Gaston placed 1-2 in the shot put at the Missour Valley Conference championships. (Photo courtesy of Saluki Media Services)

Southern Illinois freshman Raven Saunders (right) and senior teammate Ashley Gaston placed 1-2 in the shot put at the Missour Valley Conference championships. (Photo courtesy of Saluki Media Services)

Asked if her sudden success came as a surprise to her, Saunders said, “Some of it is and some of it isn’t. With the work ethic I had coming out of high school and coming here (to Southern Illinois), I knew there was a chance to improve a lot. Everything is moving in the right direction.’’

And that direction is ever farther into the shot put sector.

Saunders has already gone 59-9 ¾ at the Mt. SAC Relays in mid-April to establish an American junior record. That augurs well for the rest of the season that for this still-18-year-old figures to culminate at the USATF Outdoor Championships, June 25-28, at Hayward Field, where she’ll encounter established elite throwers such as Michelle Carter, Brittany Smith, Tia Brooks, Jeneva Stevens and Jill Camarena-Williams.

“We’re training for an NCAA outdoor title and (then) go to USAs and see how well she does against (them),’’ SIU’s John Smith said. “She’s at 61 feet right now. I can see her going 62 feet, 19 meters (62-4) this year. If she trains through the summer and keeps learning how to use her legs, she can definitely be the collegiate record-holder before she’s done. She isn’t the kingpin around here. Jeneva Stevens is. She knows what better throws look like. It’s a good situation to be in.’’

Southern Illinois track and field coach Connie Price-Smith shares a laugh with her husband and Saluki throws coach John Smith. Connie Price-Smith is a four-time Olympian in the shot put.  She

Southern Illinois track and field coach Connie Price-Smith shares a laugh with her husband, John Smith, who is also the Saluki throws coach. Price-Smith is a four-time Olympian in the shot put. (Photo courtesy of Southern Illinoisan)

 

Saunders said she likes having a former shot putter as her head coach. In her competitive career, Price-Smith had a best of 64-3 ¾. The way she’s going, Saunders will surpass her coach’s PR during her career at SIU.

“It’s really amazing,’’ Saunders said. “Coach Connie, she’s still really competitive. She’s always there pushing me, technique-wise. It’s really nice to have someone who’s been there and done that. She motivates me in practice.’’

Throws coach John Smith said Saunders is like a female Reese Hoffa in that she’s a short thrower with good power and quickness in the ring. Watch the clip of her winning throw at the recent NCAA Indoor meet and you’ll see a compact, fiery athlete in action.

“She hits the front of the (toe) board with bad intentions,’’ Smith said. “She attacks.’’

Back at Burke High, the personable Saunders wore her school’s Bulldog mascot costume at football games to rally the fans. Her favorite moment was tearing the head off so she could breathe normally again.

“It was extremely hot, barely any circulation,’’ Saunders said of the costume. “I’m a school-spirit person, a really over-the-top person. I tried to do anything I could without my head falling off, whatever the popular dance moves were at that time.’’

There’s yet another comparison to Hoffa, who, early in his career competed in a mask and cape at one meet as the “Unknown Shot Putter.’’

If she isn’t careful, Saunders might soon become as well-known as an American woman shot putter can ever hope to be.

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

Dendy keeps Gator tradition alive

Scaling new heights

Big aspirations for Texas A&M’s Little

Finding his sweet spot

Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.