FEATURE: Inside the Life of Raven Saunders
July 7, 2016
By Joey Jones, Ole Miss Athletics
There were no flashbulbs. No ESPN cameras or reporters. No stadium with thousands of fans cheering on the best young American thrower of this generation.
On this cold day in early February 2016, Raven Saunders was at home doing something she rarely does. She was crying.
Saunders had lost her beloved grandmother days earlier. Her head was spinning with thoughts of her family and not being able to be with them in Charleston, South Carolina. She was in the middle of the indoor track and field season of her sophomore year, just a few months removed from a life-changing move from Southern Illinois University in the small town of Carbondale to the University of Mississippi in even smaller Oxford.
She wanted to be with her mom, Clarissa, and 13-year-old sister, Tanzania. She was determined to attend her grandmother's funeral and miss the Rebels' next indoor track meet at Notre Dame.
Family is important to Raven Saunders, who has one sibling, lots of cousins, and is a niece to more uncles and aunts than she can sometimes remember. It was of utmost importance for her to honor her grandmother, a faithful member of Emanuel AME Church, a few blocks from her own home -- the same church at which nine of its members were brutally murdered on June 17, 2015, and at which Raven had been baptized. It was the very family members she wanted to be with who encouraged her to pursue her goals and compete in her grandmother's honor at Notre Dame that weekend and throughout the remainder of 2016.
"I'm really thankful for my aunts and other family members," Saunders said. "It was really difficult for me to decide if I should go back home or continue on with this season, and they were really understanding of what my goal was and what I was working toward. They told me `your grandmother understands everything you wanted to accomplish and would want you to go out there and do your best.'"
On February 2, she made the difficult choice to not attend the funeral. That same day, she was named National Women's Athlete of the Week for all of college track & field.
The next Friday, Febraury 5, Saunders shattered the all-time Ole Miss record in the weight throw by a foot-and-a-half (20.78m/68-2.25).
The next day, she won Notre Dame's Meyo Invitational shot put competition by seven feet (18.12m/59-5.5).
Five days later, teammate Ty Laporte, a fellow South Carolina native, was killed in a car wreck near Holly Springs, Mississippi.
The very next day, Saunders broke the all-time women's collegiate indoor shot put record (19.23m/63-1.25).
The track & field world was abuzz about the great Raven Saunders and her star-socked, dread-locked whirling, power-throwing prowess. But Raven was most pleased that she had been able to connect with her grandmother before her passing.
"When I went home over the winter break, I made sure I spent a good amount of time with her. I could really see she was in pain," Saunders recalls. "Two weeks prior to her passing, I don't know what it was, but something told me to call my grandmother. I was telling her how I was doing and how things were going. The last thing we said to each other was I love you."
"I know she's still there with me. Throughout this season especially, I've known that she's really happy and proud of me."
And proud she should be.
Saunders, who came to Ole Miss last August with a boatload of previous accolades -- two-time NCAA champion at Southern Illinois, American junior shot put record holder, two-time U.S. junior champion, Pan American junior champion, U.S. high school shot put record holder, Gatorade National High School Athlete of the Year -- has done only one thing since she followed head coach Connie Price-Smith and throws coach John Smith from Carbondale to Oxford: improve.
Saunders is now not only the best American female high school shot putter of all-time, she's the best in college history too. Her indoor collegiate record of 19.23m/63-1.25 was just a preview of what was to come at the pinnacle moment of the Rebels' outdoor season. Standing in the rain-soaked circle at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, Saunders spun twice and launched the 8.8-pound metal ball farther than any female college student ever on U.S. soil. Her NCAA-winning shot put cratered the gravel pit 19.33 meters from the circle, or 63 feet, 5 inches. It broke a 33-year-old collegiate record.
The success has brought immense attention to Saunders, who takes it all in stride.
"I've gotten used to it. I like it," she said of her celebrity status. "It started senior year of high school. Even then, I feel like I handled it pretty well. It's fun to see how so many people take notice when you're working toward something. I really try to downplay a lot of my accomplishments, because in my mind, I worked for it. It's not by luck or by chance. But it is nice."
The spotlight fits Raven Saunders, who readily admits she doesn't mind being unique. She cut off her dreadlocks on a whim between the SEC outdoor meet and NCAA East Preliminary, and then decided to dye her freshly cropped hair red for nationals. Every time she belts out her signature laugh, a little flash of light glints off of her tongue ring.
"Raven has a great personality," said throws coach Smith, who confesses that Saunders actually recruited him out of high school instead of the other way around. "I've watched her speak to a room full of 50-year-old men and they were just eaten up with her. They loved her and were falling for every word she said. She is very outgoing and just one of those kids that people gravitate toward."
Her bigger-than-life personality can make people forget she stands only 5-foot-5, almost comically short for an elite track & field thrower.
"I had hoop dreams. But being 5-5 and a power forward or center wasn't really going to work out," Saunders says with a chuckle.
High school success comes quickly
Saunders grew up playing any sport she could with cousins and friends in her neighborhood.
"We had basketball courts and we had a small grass field where we would play tag. Or we would take a broomstick and a tennis ball and play baseball. If you weren't into sports, you weren't really going to have a nice childhood because that's what most of us did."
Her love for playing basketball lasted halfway through high school but eventually gave way to her newfound sport of track and field.
"My basketball coach in ninth grade was going to be the head track coach and he told me to come out," she recalls. "I came out and won the shot put my first meet, so I stayed at it. And then I got another coach for the rest of high school."
That second coach's name is Herbert Johnson. And other than Raven herself, he may very well be the catalyst behind one of the sport's budding stars.
Johnson took Saunders under his wing at Burke High School and taught her how to throw. He coached her to state titles, state records, national titles and national records. She broke the South Carolina shot put record by 11 feet and won the state discus title by 42 feet. He helped her transition from the glide to the spin technique. But it was more than just on the track; he coached her in life.
"I grew up the same as a lot of people in my area -- single-mother household, didn't have too much or seem like there may not have been a way out," Saunders said. "I could've given in and got caught up and stayed in it. But I had someone there for me -- my high school coach who was basically trying to grind it into my head and show me there is something else out there for you."
Johnson's hard work with Saunders has paid off. And then some.
While Saunders notes that many of the children in her neighborhood, which is 20-25 minutes from the Charleston beaches, have never even seen the ocean, Saunders had already seen much of the world by her 20th birthday in May, thanks to track and field.
"You know, she didn't come from a lot,' said Price-Smith, who herself is a mother figure to Saunders and an immense role model as a four-time Olympic thrower and the head coach of the Team USA women for this year's Rio Olympics. "They had to raise money for her to go to junior nationals in Oregon. (Johnson) probably paid for a lot of things himself and helped her get to places. She's had great role models. I think her mom has done a great job with her. And her high school coach was probably like a father or grandfather."
"One of the reasons she's progressed so quickly is that (Johnson) pushed her really hard and wouldn't take crap from her," said Smith, who takes pride in his own three-decade tenure of no-nonsense coaching. "Athletes today can be really entitled and think everything revolves around them. Raven was raised old-fashioned. You just do what the coach tells you to do. Your first year in college you do everything the coach says to do and keep your mouth shut. Second year, you can start asking questions. And that's what she did and why she's had the success she has."
Life is different in Mississippi
After a record-breaking freshman year of college at Southern Illinois, Saunders was a bit shocked when her head coach and position coach announced they were taking jobs at Ole Miss last July.
But she knew pretty quickly she wanted to stay with the ones who had guided her from high school phenom to two-time NCAA champion and American junior record holder.
"They were the reason that I got to be so successful, so I just followed them down to Mississippi," Saunders said.
"It's totally different than what I expected," she said of living in Oxford. "There are still parts of Mississippi that I'm pretty sure are like what I had in mind, but Oxford itself is far from it. Not even close. I like the culture. It's the South, so I'm really familiar with it. It reminds me of home a little."
Saunders enjoys some of the Southern comfort food she missed while up north, while she admits she has had to relearn how to take everything at a slower, more relaxed pace again.
The main problem for Raven in Oxford? She doesn't have a car.
"Ten dollars for a cab is kind of killing my pockets," she says, half-jokingly. "I rent the school's bikes, but it's just a campus thing. There are too many hills in Oxford to be trying to ride a bike everywhere."
Price-Smith, in quintessential mother-like form, is just fine with her not having a car and needing to hitch rides with teammates.
"She keeps telling me, `I'm 20, I need a car now,'" Price-Smith said. "And I say, "No, you don't need a car. You need a moped."
"My teammates are really cool about it, thankfully," Saunders said.
The bond of a former Olympian and Olympic hopeful
Price-Smith has been there and done that -- four-time Olympian (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000), 25-time U.S. champion in the shot put and discus, 15-year professional athlete, 15-year college coach, several times a coach for Team USA in international competitions.
Saunders, who hopes to make the Team USA roster for Rio, is still toward the beginning of her track and field journey and could not have a more fitting mentor.
"Coach Connie is definitely like a mother for me," Saunders says with a gleam in her eye. "She disciplines me when I need it. And she's there to listen when no one else is there. She's one of those people that if you're willing to fight for yourself, she's willing to fight for you. And sometimes even if you've lost that fight, she's going to fight to try and put it back into you."
For her part, Price-Smith is glad to play the role of mother/coach for Saunders.
"It's every day -- Raven don't do this, do that. Come over here, stay over there. And it really is like being her mom. It's a good role. I enjoy it. One of the things I tell parents when we're recruiting is that I'll make sure I take care of your child like you would take care of them and like they are my own, and I think I do that."
Both Price-Smith and Smith agree that coaching Saunders is easy. She's teachable, listens well and works hard. And she can translate her training into production when it counts.
"She really is a sweet kid," Price-Smith said.
For what often seems like an individual sport, Raven Saunders is universally a wonderful track and field teammate.
"I would say the majority of the time, she's the one leading the Hotty Toddy (chant) at our meets," said Shannon Ray, a two-time All-American sprinter and also a sophomore on the Ole Miss team. "One time she gave a whole speech and it got us all pumped up before the meet. She basically said the time is now. Don't hold back from anything, just give your all. Go get first place. Don't settle. If you're behind, go get second or third. It was powerful."
Saunders can be found cheering her fellow throwers, but she roots for the sprinters, jumpers and distance runners all the same.
"When you go to a meet and the distance runners or sprinters may start the meet off, it can have a snowball effect. You want to feed off that energy. Oh, Sean (Tobin) just went out and had a great meet, so I'm going to go out and give it all I have. Or Bre and Dee (Breanna and Deanna Tate). It's just the energy level. It helps a lot. And when somebody's going through something, you're there for them. Even off the track, it's nice because you have people you know you can depend on for just about anything."
Leadership is a natural quality for the outgoing, personable and hard-working Saunders, who is one of the oldest members of her extended family.
"I've always loved being a leader. When I was younger, people might have said I was slightly bossy," she said with a chuckle. "But I don't believe that was the case.
"I may have just always been right," she says with more laughing.
Raven's favorite hobby
Those who know Raven best -- even those who don't know her all that well -- can identify her single most recognizable feature.
It's not her dreadlocks or red hair. Not her stylish socks. Not her muscles. Not even her fiery glare that could burn a hole into her opponents in the heat of competition.
It's that laugh.
"She has the craziest laugh on the team," Ray said. "Everybody knows her laugh."
Since she arrived in Oxford, Saunders has made it her goal to host team gatherings and watch TV shows or Ole Miss sporting events together. Invariably, there's a lot to laugh about when teammates unite away from practice and meets.
"I love to make people laugh," Saunders said. "Because I love to laugh. Laughing is my favorite hobby."
Advocate for those without a voice
When Saunders isn't training, competing or laughing with friends, she spends most of her time and energy being an advocate for people in need.
Her Facebook and Instagram accounts regularly include inspiring messages and alarming news about social injustices. She is compassionate. She cares.
"I try to see things from other people's perspectives and get an understanding of where someone else may be coming from," Saunders said. "A lot of things people may be biased about, but I try to see the other side of it. I feel like you never can fully understand something until you understand both sides, with as little bias as possible. Before my time is up on this earth, I really do want to help a lot of people."
Along with former SIU teammate and NCAA hammer throw champion DeAnna Price and others, Saunders has been an advocate for changing the narrative of female athletes.
"I really love being a tough athlete," Saunders said. "I don't want to be `girly' in a sense. When you have to go out there and throw an 8.8-pound shot put 60-something feet, there's nothing `girly' about it. Nothing soft and pretty about it. So in our sport, I feel like that's one thing that's held a lot of girls back. They don't want to get too muscular or too big, because in female sports that's been seen as a negative thing. But when you look at men's sports, they get praised for it. So I take pride in it because I can go out there and get after it. I do what I want how I want to do it. I'm happy with it. I can't wait until it gets to the point where so many girls are able to go out there and do the exact same thing."
The direction of a person's life is fundamentally shaped by childhood. That can manifest itself in different ways, and Saunders has chosen to pursue big dreams and use her relatively newfound platform to help as many people as she can who grew up with circumstances like those she experienced.
"Growing up where I did, I saw a lot of people being complacent and getting what I call stuck. Kind of frozen in time. They haven't moved on from high school, or maybe they dropped out of high school, or they left Charleston and came back. They've stopped. Sometimes when I might be close to falling off, I talk to my high school coach and he reminds me why I'm doing what I'm doing. I want to be better and to never be satisfied."
"A lot of times all it takes is for somebody to lend a hand and help. Or someone to pave the way for you to see something else. That there's something's out there. I'm thankful that I was able to make it out."
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