Burke (Charleston, S.C.) senior Raven Saunders was today named the 2013-14 Gatorade National Track & Field Athlete of the Year. The 5-foot-5 teen set a national prep record at the Taco Bell Classic in April, launching the shot put 56 feet, 8.25 inches to break a mark set in 2003 by almost two feet. Saunders nearly matched that effort at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor, earning a national title with a throw of 56-7.5.
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She also captured gold twice at the Class AA state meet this spring, winning the discus with a throw of 148-5, to go with her shot put effort (55-8), which broke the all-class state record by 11 feet. Saunders hurled the discus a season-best 159-11, which ranked as the No. 10 performance in the nation among prep competitors in 2014 at the time of her selection.
Q: You entered the season with zero of the best prep throws of all time in the shot put and now own the top four throws in history (and six of the top 20). How do you explain that?
A: We did a lot of hard work over the summer, but we ourselves didn’t even know the progression was going where it ended up. I threw 46, then 48, then 50. But we didn’t know where we were or how far we had come until I threw at the New Balance Nationals Indoor and (National Scholastic Athletic Foundation Executive Director) Jim Spier told me I had the No. 4 (prep) throw of all-time. I said, ‘For South Carolina?’ and he said, ‘No, ever.’ That’s when I knew I was getting close, but we just sort of sheltered ourselves off and focused on continuing to improve.
Q: So, Raven’s a cool name. Does it come from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe?
A: I read that poem in AP English as a sophomore, but that’s not where I get my name. My mom tells me she drew the name of (actress) Raven-Symoné (of The Cosby Show fame) at her baby shower as a naming suggestion for me. She didn’t want to name me after an actress, so she just stuck with Raven.
Q: You’re headed off to the USATF Junior Outdoor Championships next week thanks to the Bishop England Track & Field community? Three months after their donation made your trip a reality, how to you feel about their generosity?
A: It was mind-blowing to benefit from that, but Bishop England has a long tradition of treating people well. They’re always a powerhouse athletically, but that community is always a classy opponent and a caring opponent. When they donated over $1,000 on my behalf, it was shocking. But at the same time, it wasn’t all that surprising because I know who they are. I was shocked at a gift of that size, but not that the people who gave it did so.
Q: You had an opportunity to throw at The Citadel (next door to Burke High) this year. How, specifically, did use of those facilities elevate your performance?
A: It was really important because over this year I switched from the glide to the spin technique. I really needed a smoother surface for the rotation. Having a real shot put green and not a cracked circle that we dug up from the 1960s that is continually covered in mud was huge. I wouldn’t have been able to spin otherwise and that was the key for me. I mean, I was throwing in cross trainers. I didn’t even have throwing shoes until after I’d thrown 53 feet, so a lot came together for me this year.
Q: Things weren’t ideal for you on multiple levels as a sophomore—grades, track & field, things at home—what was the key factor that enabled you to rise to the success you’re now enjoying?
A: Well, while junior year was even more challenging for me in my sport, sophomore year was challenging outside of sports. I had what I guess you would call a sophomore slump. I was going through the motions. It’s kind of foggy because I was so unfocused. But my coach sat me down and told me he wasn’t going to coach anyone who wasn’t going to work in the classroom. He told me if a teacher or counselor or the principal ever had to talk to him again about my grades, we were done. That snapped me into focus pretty good.
Q: You credit Communities in Schools South Carolina—a local chapter of a national organization that helps students who are academically at risk—with your turnaround in the classroom. In what ways did they help?
A: Katrina Bell and Robert Ellington (at CIS) really helped me out a lot. They were like guidance counselors. Any problem I had, even as a senior, they had my back with my busy schedule and offering me the help I needed. They didn’t just tell me what to do, they guided me.
Q: As of 2013, only 71.9 percent of black high school students in Charleston County were graduating from high school. Do you think the example you’ve set could provide and inspiration to teens at academic risk?
A: I do hope that it did. If I can help somebody, all this work has been worth it. I try to talk to underclassmen and tell them what they need to do. I like to see people succeed. I wouldn’t want to turn my back on education or live in poverty. Nobody deserves that, so we need to help as much as we can.
Q: You’re heading to Hollywood in three weeks where you’ll be celebrated along with Gatorade’s 11 other 2013-14 national winners in conjunction with the ESPY Awards. Can you even get your head around that?
A: You know, growing up, you see all that on TV and it’s not real. It’s like a fairy tale and you say, ‘I’ll probably never bee at something like that.’ It’s pretty mind-boggling. I walk around and realize that I’m just a regular person and I wonder sometimes why everyone is making a big deal of my shot put ability. But I’m blessed and I welcome it all.