The inimitable Raven Saunders clinched precious silver for USA at the Oregon 2014 World Junior Championships. A partisan Hayward Field crowd played their part, but the 18-year-old shot putter had to use everything at her disposal just to get there.
Speaking to SPIKES the day after winning shot put silver, Raven Saunders, a teenager from Charleston, South Carolina, wore a big grin befitting a world medallist.
She had played the crowd like a pro. Dreadlocked, and with long basketball style shorts set off by stars and stripes socks, Saunders whipped Hayward Field up into a frenzy.
Saving the best until last, a sixth round throw of 16.62m elevated her from bronze to silver on the medal podium.
This time last year, her very participation in Oregon was just a pipe dream.
“My coach [Herbert Johnson] and I knew that I could be a big contender for the USA junior team,” she says. “But we knew if we were going to compete for that spot, we needed money.”
And money isn’t always easy to come by when you’re a high school student and spend your spare time training.
Cash might have been short, but Saunders has two more important things: talent and character.
At the tail end of last year, she turned a season that “wasn’t going as planned” on its head, thanks to a little help from YouTube.
“In my freshman year [aged 14] I was throwing about 36ft [11m] consistently,” she says. “In my sophomore year I threw 42ft 5ins [12.92m] but I hadn’t thrown past 40ft at a meet – so I told my coach I wanted to try the spin [technique].
“I went on YouTube and saw Randy Barnes [US shot put world record holder]. I was in the library practicing his technique.”
(Note: SPIKES does not condone tossing a steel ball around the silent study area. No-one needs those fines.)
Saunders’ form on the field started to improve almost overnight. At a meet just three days after adopting her new technique, she hit the 45ft (13.70m) line in the warm up.
“My coach was like: ‘OK, we’re gonna have a great meet’,” she says, laughing. “I followed that with 41ft [12.49m], 44ft [13.4m]… It was crazy.”
That was in June 2013. By October, Saunders was adding 0.15–0.30m to her throws “every three or four weeks”.
Her progression continued, and by April she had set national junior records indoors (17.26m) and out (17.28m).
Give me one shot: Follow Raven on Twitter @GiveMe1Shot
Those performances mark her out as the youngest shot putter in the world’s top 60, and the 15th best US thrower this year.
Saunders’ attention then turned to the national junior champs, and earning a spot on Team USA for the world juniors – both held at Eugene’s Hayward Field in 2014.
Eugene, Oregon is nowhere near Charleston, South Carolina. It’s 100km further away than Brazil.
Needing money to fund her trip, the savvy Saunders once again consulted the internet.
“We started to fundraise and my coach told me about a website we could do it on, which is when I found [crowd funding website] GoFundMe,” she says. And though it got off to a good start, her campaign began to stall.
“The first week I had $315. Then for a week or two after that the account basically stood still.
“Then one of the local high schools gave $1000, and everything just took off from there.
“It wasn’t even my high school, it was one of our rivals. That was really awesome; it was so great when they gave that money, it really meant a lot to me.”
The page was set up in April, and to date she has raised more than $6,600. Those donors – along with Saunders’ resourceful thinking – have been rewarded with US junior gold and world junior silver, both won 4000km away from her hometown.
And as well as her throws, she’s been grabbing attention with her vibrant socks, adorned with the stars and stripes of the US’s spangled banner.
“Before my indoor national meet I was just looking for some socks. I saw these ones – the American flag, black white a grey,” she says.
“Coming up to my national meet I was like ‘oh I haven’t worn these socks’. They went with the uniform so it worked out perfectly. Ever since then I wear them to a lot of my big meets.”
Sock it to 'em: Saunders means business in the shot put circle.
We’re a fan. And she’s got the twinkle toes to match those stars and stripes, too.
“I like to dance,” she says with a hearty laugh. “It’s just freestyle. Whenever I hear music, I like to dance.”
In the fall, Saunders heads off to Southern Illinois University to major in marketing, though her real focus is on Rio.
“I want to give the 2016 Olympics a good shot. Just to make the team would be awesome.”
But that’s not the limit to her ambitions: “In [Tokyo] 2020 and 2024 hopefully I can get a medal. Hopefully a gold medal.”
Having already shown the ingenuity to get this far, that goal can’t be ruled out.