USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring each of the 12 finalists for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award during a two-week series leading into the July 15 announcement in Los Angeles. The award is given to the top male and female among the 12 finalists, who won their respective sport’s national player of the year award earlier in the 2013-14 school year. USA TODAY High School Sports administrates the nationwide selection process in collaboration with Gatorade.
Burke High (Charleston, S.C.) recent graduate Raven Saunders couldn’t believe her reality as she grinned and held the Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year trophy.
Receiving the award had never entered her thoughts despite her impressive achievements, which include two South Carolina AA state titles for discus and shot put, and a shot put national prep record of 56 feet, 8.25 inches.
Saunders’ accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering her minimal training environment — Burke doesn’t have a throwing circle so Saunders often trained in an uneven parking lot.
“I didn’t know what everyone else (from other schools) had. To me, I had the best facilities in the world,” she said.
Saunders will upgrade when she heads to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale this fall, also leaving behind her duties as Burke’s senior class president and student government representative.
In the meantime, she’s getting ready to walk the red carpet at the ESPN ESPY awards in Los Angeles on July 16, in addition to attempting to qualify for the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore.
Fresh off a training session, Saunders recently caught up with USA TODAY High School Sports’ Sarah Gearhart to reflect on her athletic career and how she likes to unwind when she’s not training.
Gearhart: What’s the meaning behind your Twitter handle, @GiveMe1Shot?
Saunders: I want to show everyone where I belong. No one really knew who I was at the beginning of the season. So I thought ‘Give me one shot, and I’ll show you what I can do.’
Gearhart: Tell me about your recent tweet — having to choose betweenathletics, school and a social life.
Saunders: If I want to be at the top, I have to sacrifice one of the three. There’s really only one that I can sacrifice — my social life — and still get to where I want to be. If it comes down to getting rest for my next practice or going out with friends, I’m going to go home and sleep. My good friends understand; they support me.
Gearhart: What satisfies you about track?
Saunders: The competition and that it’s an individual sport. Any mistake falls on me. But I know that as long as I’m pushing myself, there’s no excuse why I shouldn’t succeed.
Gearhart: Tell me about a time you felt intimidated by your competition.
Saunders: The last time I was nervous was during my junior season. I was throwing discus, and there was another girl who was throwing around the same distance as me. I kind of got psyched out. That was my first time being in a battle with someone who had equal talent as I did. I felt a little bit of pressure because I had an undefeated reputation to protect. I had to change my mindset. So I just told myself to buffer down.
Gearhart: How do you mentally prepare to compete?
Saunders: I listen to just about anything — pop, rock and hip-hop. Surprisingly, I listen to an Adele song before I compete. It’s called, “My Same.” A lot of people might not think of her as a person who would get you hyped. But there’s a part in the song I listen to and break down my technique in my head. I listen to the song on repeat before every track meet.
Gearhart: What, if anything, are you superstitious about before you compete?
Saunders: I don’t have lucky socks, but I wear my favorite socks — they’re black and grey with American flags. I wear them for big meets.
Gearhart: So you’ve got them ready for USA Junior Nationals in Eugene, Ore.?
Saunders:I’ve got them washed and intact! (laughs)
Gearhart: Tell me about your GoFundMe initiative for junior nationals. You exceeded your fundraising goal of $5,000 and collected $6,625.
Saunders: Neither my coach or I had the funds to go to the meet. We were trying to think of different ways to raise money. I didn’t have time to do classic fundraisers like car washes or bake sales. So I set up a GoFundMe page online, and I shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Teachers and friends also shared it. As I was doing well with shot put, more people became familiar with who I was and donated. Coming from one of the least recognized events in track and having so many people’s support meant a lot.
Gearhart: Who’s been your greatest source of motivation throughout your athletic career?
Saunders: My coach. Even before I got really serious about track, he saw something in me and kept pushing me. He really got me understand how close I was to getting a full scholarship. He says no matter what I’m doing, I’ll be successful.
Gearhart: What’s something you struggled with growing up, and what helped you overcome it?
Saunders: I had to build my confidence. I used to look down on myself.I was overweight in middle school, and people have the stereotype that big kids are lazy and slow. And although kids wouldn’t say things to my face, they’d say things behind my back. A lot of times I felt like I had to prove myself. Athletics uplifted me.
Gearhart: What’s your ultimate athletic goal?
Saunders: To be an Olympic gold medalist for the shot put.
Gearhart: Who do you look up to in the sport?
Saunders: Brian Oldfield, who threw in the ’70s and ’80s. I admire the type of thrower he was, and I loved what he was about — always working hard and pressing forward.
Gearhart: Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently earlier in your track career?
Saunders: I would have tried to grasp more what I was doing. In the beginning, the sport was something to do. I didn’t understand how it could play into my career. I wish I could have done more outside of practice even though it wasn’t asked of me at the time.
Gearhart: What’s your favorite way to unwind when you’re not practicing or competing?
Saunders: I like to go to my friend’s house to play NBA 2K14 and Call of Duty: Ghosts. There’s no pressure or stress of working out, and it’s a good way to be competitive.