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Raven Saunders Feature Smashing Success - 2014 DyeStat

Published by
DyeStat   Apr 16th 2014, 11:01pm

Raven Saunders pursuing perfect technique


By Doug Binder, DyeStat Editor


The astonishing transformation of Raven Saunders’ shot put career began in the days leading up to her state championship meet in South Carolina last year.


Saunders, then a junior at Burke High School of Charleston, knew that she needed to try something different. As a sophomore she had peaked with a best of 42 feet, 5 inches and won the state title. As a junior, despite increased focus and workload, she hadn’t gotten any better. Her best throw was 39-6.


 “I guess it just wasn’t my year,” Saunders said. “I was trying to crush it and it just didn’t happen. Strength-wise, I had improved a whole lot and should have been at 45 or 46 feet.”




So Saunders began to wonder about switching from the “glide” – employed by the vast majority of high school throwers – in favor of the more complicated “spin” technique used by elites.


“My coach kind of figured by the time I went to college I’d switch to the spin anyway because of my height and size and speed,” Saunders said.


Two days before the state meet, Saunders got online and began to watch slow-motion videos of spin technique on YouTube. She found a video of Randy Barnes (the World record holder). She played it over and over, studying for hours.


She tried it the next day, six or seven times. Her first throw with the spin went 41 feet.


In the warm-up at the state championship, Saunders spun in the ring and her shot landed on chalk of the 45-foot line. But she was still wildly inconsistent and barely knew what she was doing. When the competition started she fouled her first two attempts and her coach, Herb Johnson, told her to go back to the glide.


Saunders won the state title again, with 35-6. It was the last time she ever threw using the glide.


A year later, Saunders is the national record holder – indoors and out – and nearly two feet beyond any high school girl in U.S. history. Last Saturday, she threw 56-8.25. By this summer, she could be a gold medal contender at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore.     




“I always felt like I was never the best (at sports). I was never the No. 1 athlete,” she said. “I always came in second and I was never really good at anything. Now, me being one of the best (shot putters) in history, it hasn’t hit me. It just puts me back to work to be better.”


Putting It Together


Saunders lived in a downtown Charleston housing project with a high crime rate until she was seven and then moved to a neighborhood that was marginally safer. She grew up with an interest in sports and longed to be a star on the basketball court.


“I was the chubby kid that wanted to be an athlete,” she said.


In the fifth grade, Saunders began attending Sunday services at historic Centenary United Methodist Church in Charleston. And she learned the history of the 170-year-old house of worship with a facade that looks like an ancient Greek temple. Prominent African-Americans in Charleston acquired the building a year after the Civil War ended, in 1866, paying for it with $20,000 in gold.


It’s a history that Saunders knows well and there are faint echoes of that story – overcoming obstacles, refusing to settle – that have served as guideposts.


Saunders was determined to learn how to spin and propel the shot much farther. Her college education, and the fulfillment of her dreams, depended on it.


Johnson accumulated decades’ worth of acquired books and training videos and began to study the technique. He would have to learn it himself as he taught it to Saunders.


Saunders didn’t have actual throwing shoes. Most of her high school throwing had been conducted in Air Jordans. (She got her first actual throwing shoes last November). Her school doesn’t have a throwing circle, let alone a cage.


Together, they went to work.


“The beginning of the summer (my throwing) was horrible,” Saunders said. “It was a learning experience for both of us. I started off throwing (with a spin) 34, 35 feet. Things got better and I got to 46 before the summer was out. It wasn’t until late September, early October that it started coming together.”


Johnson gave Saunders his time and his patience. Saunders gave Johnson her attention and consistent effort. She shared her own opinions and disagreed with her coach sometimes. But they worked through the problems together.


The process of moving from the glide to the spin requires a re-inventing of an athlete’s throwing motion. It can take a year, or 18 months, in some cases.


Johnson said it took a “perfect storm” to shorten the time frame. First, Saunders had quick feet and explosive power, which made some of the movements come naturally. Second, she was willing to listen to criticism, to study the technique on her own, and spend countless hours mastering the footwork on the sidewalk in front of her home. (She was forced outside after nearly wearing holes in her mother’s carpet).


“The funny thing about it was that we were so secluded (from the throwing community) that we didn’t understand what we were doing,” Saunders said. “We knew what the national records were but we set our goals past them. We kept throwing just to get better. It was more about getting the technique down and learning why parts of it made the ball do what it does.”


Renewed Inspiration


Herb Johnson started coaching track and field back in 1976. Over 38 years he spent time at high schools, worked for a stint at Claflin University, and coached summer club track.


When he first started coaching, Johnson figured he would coach numerous athletes to the Olympic level. But reality proved otherwise, and so he decided that striving for state championships in South Carolina was a worthwhile goal, too.


Johnson coached all the events, from sprints to jumps to throws, and all of those seasons bled into decades. Over the past 10 years there were times Johnson felt like walking away from the sport and putting his energy into something else.


Three years ago, someone asked him to stop by a Burke High meet to have a look at one of the school’s sprinters. He went, but his eye quickly caught the freshman girl throwing the shot put. She was powerfully built and easily won the meet with 32 feet. The coach saw raw talent.


Johnson had no intention of coaching the girl. But soon after that, Burke’s throws coach needed to take a pregnancy leave and Johnson was approached about stepping in.


Burke’s girls track team (in 2014) consists of seven girls: Five freshmen, Saunders, and one other senior.


Essentially, it’s been one-on-one tutoring between the old coach hoping for one last chance to take an athlete to the top and the talented girl who possesses “the perfect storm.”


“I’m amazed I was lucky enough to be the one coaching and teaching her. This is my blessing,” Johnson said. “Many times I thought I’d had enough.”


To begin with, Johnson felt that Saunders had the ability to win state titles in South Carolina (where the state record was only 45 feet) and perhaps get some of her college paid for. He evaluated Saunders and established a goal for her senior year: 47-7.


He believed that Saunders’ size was a limiting factor. At 5 feet, 4.75 inches, she doesn’t have the height that is typical of elite throwers. That means her release point is lower than other elite throwers.


However, taller throwers also can feel confined by the limited space of the ring. Saunders has more room to move, doesn’t feel confined, and if she can hit the right positions then her explosiveness can overcome some of the disadvantage.


Johnson brought a fresh set of eyes to teaching the spin technique. He knew that he wasn’t an expert but he became one. He built a template of what Saunders’ throw should look like and held it in his mind. He preferred to analyze Saunders’ body positions with his own eyes than by filming her throws and then reviewing them slowed down.


So far that keen eye for detail has served them well.


Johnson put together a rigorous workout plan that consisted of a daily list of items. Saunders would work at the school until 6:30 or 7 p.m. (with daylight savings). And then she would go home and do more drills on her own.


On Saturdays they met at 9:30 a.m. and worked until 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon. Sometimes they would wait for the youth soccer practices to end so she could practice throwing discus from the sidewalk into a flat grass field. Occasionally, they would get permission to use the throwing ring at The Citadel, a military university in Charleston.


“I feel like I (get) high quality coaching,” Saunders said. “(Johnson) takes everything seriously. He does not accept laziness at all. He’s invested a whole lot of time. I think he’s one of the best (throws) coaches that there is right now.”


Pushing A Little Harder


Only Saunders and Johnson knew what was going on late last fall, as one workout after another added inches – and then feet – to her throws.


In December, Saunders got the attention of the high school track community beyond South Carolina when she threw 53-8.25 at the NCRunners Elite Holiday Invitational on Dec. 21.


By the time she arrived at New York City for New Balance Nationals Indoor in March, Johnson figured she was ready for something in the 54-55 range. Instead, on her first attempt, Saunders launched a throw of 56-7.50 that left those around The Armory cage stunned.


Breaking the Michelle Carter indoor record was one thing. Breaking the outdoor record mattered just as much to legitimize her hard work paying off, Saunders said.


“I feel like (the outdoor record) solidifies me as one of the top throwers in high school,” Saunders said. “If I hadn’t gotten that record people would have questioned me as a thrower. Now, there are no more questions.”


Success has come quickly and Saunders feels a responsibility to her community and other kids in Charleston who are striving for improvement and a sense of accomplishment.


Burke is a century-old high school that was built for the African-American population in downtown Charleston decades before desegregation. Sixty years ago the enrollment was near 2000 students. Today the number is about 400 and the school is slated to drop from Class 2A to 1A next year. There are signs of improvement. After eight consecutive years of being labeled “at risk” and “persistently failing,” Burke is seeing measured improvement.


Saunders wants to be part of that story as well.


“Especially now where I’m at, I’m trying to tell younger kids, guys and girls, push yourself a little bit harder,” Saunders said.


Saunders has signed a letter-of-intent to Southern Illinois University, where she will be coached by Connie Price-Smith, a four-time Olympian and one of the all-time great throwers in U.S. history.


Saunders said she was shocked to the point of being almost speechless the first time she met Smith-Price. She can’t wait to tap in to all of that knowledge and experience.


At Burke, where fresh hope springs eternal, there is a sophomore thrower on the team named Kobe Brown who is showing promise.


Brown is 6-foot-5, 310 pounds. And sees Saunders work at perfecting her craft every day.


“He looks at her in the weight room and she shows him what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Johnson said.


Coach Johnson is invigorated again. He’ll take Saunders as far as he can take her before passing her to Price-Smith. And then he’ll have a new project in Brown.


“He’s going to keep me involved until he (graduates),” Johnson said. “He has the desire, too.”

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