SIU-bound Raven Saunders a rare find

Shot putter has exploded onto national stage with next stop at Saturday's Chicagoland Throwers Meet at Benedictine

SIU-bound Raven Saunders winning the U.S. junior title in the shot put.

SIU-bound Raven Saunders winning the U.S. junior title in the shot put. (Phil Johnson / Track Town / July 5, 2014)

Since she won the South Carolina state title in the shot put as a high school sophomore, Raven Saunders had thought of Southern Illinois as her dream school.

It was the place she hoped to become an elite thrower under the tutelage of Saluki coaches Connie Price-Smith, a four-time Olympic thrower, and her husband, John Smith, who had coached his wife.

When her junior year ended, SIU had shown no interest in Saunders, with good reason. John Smith didn't need to invest in going after an unremarkable 42-foot shot putter from the East Coast when there were plenty that good closer to home.

"I was heartbroken I hadn't heard from the school I wanted to go to," Saunders said this week.

A few months later, Saunders had become so good Smith no longer thought he had a shot at her.

"I got to speak to some of the greatest throwing coaches in history," said Herbert Johnson, her high school coach, chuckling over the flood of recruiting calls from major universities after Saunders suddenly became a stunning 53-foot thrower last December.

By then, a convoluted chain of connections involving Saunders' old basketball coach prompted the call from SIU she had been waiting for.

And two days after Saunders broke Michelle Carter's 11-year national high school indoor shot put record by nearly two feet with a throw of 56 feet, 71/2 inches at the New Balance national high school championships in mid-March, she signed with Southern Illinois.

"Raven is by far the best shot putter coming in the door we have ever had," Smith said.

Saunders has gotten even better since, winning the Gatorade national high school track athlete of the year award that helps make her the star attraction in Saturday's fourth annual Chicagoland Throwers Meet at Benedictine University in Lisle.

The javelin, hammer, discus and shot competitions also include Olympic discus champion Stephanie Brown Trafton, several other Olympians and two-time NCAA javelin champion Tim Glover of Normal, an Illinois State grad.

In late April, Saunders took down the 11-year-old outdoor record held by Carter, who has gone on to two OIympics, finishing fifth at London two years ago. This one, 56-81/2, also was nearly a two-foot improvement over Carter's.

That throw would have ranked Saunders ninth among NCAA Division I women this season. It makes her the No. 3 junior (Under-20) thrower in the world this year and a medal contender at the World Junior Championships 22-27 in Eugene, Ore., for which Saunders qualified by winning the U.S. junior title last Saturday in Eugene.

"She has a gun and a half for an arm," Smith said. "There is a lot more there than what she has thrown."

Not bad for a young woman who took up the shot and discus as a high school freshman only because she thought it would help her footwork for basketball, which she soon dropped in favor of track.

Despite a promising start as a shot putter, her best throw as a junior was a meager 39-5. That led Johnson to dig out old throwing manuals and videos to convert Saunders from a glider to a spinner, a more complicated technique better suited to her height (only 5 feet 41/2) that the coach thought she would learn first in college.

"She is a natural spinner," SIU's Smith said.

Saunders, 18, the Burke High School student body president and student government president who indulged her crazy energy by wearing the mascot uniform at football games and pep rallies, was the one who suggested the switch.

"After the disaster last season, we had to try something else," Johnson said. "I gave her until October to see if she could make it work. Our ultimate goal was to get to 50 feet. For me to say I expected this … no way."

It was so unexpected Saunders had to use an Internet funding campaign to raise money to send herself and her coach to junior nationals. That was successful enough that there is money left to get Johnson to worlds, for which USA Track & Field will pay her expenses.

"If someone had told me a year ago this could have happened, I would have laughed and probably said, 'Yeah, I'll dream about it,''' Saunders said.

In getting to SIU, Sanders showed she obviously knows the way to turn dreams into reality.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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