Raven Saunders holds the trophy during a press conference after being named the 2013-14 Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year, Wednesday, June 25, 2014 in Charleston, S.C. The award recognizes outstanding athletic excellence as well as high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the field. Photo/Gatorade, Susan Goldman, handout.
June 25, 2014
By Tyler Wooten
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- SIU signee Raven Saunders, the No. 1-ranked girls shot putter in the country, was named the Gatorade National Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year in a surprise ceremony at Burke High School on Wednesday morning.
Although she broke the all-time girls high school shot put record several times during her senior year, Saunders said she was still shocked by the award presentation.
"I'm still trying to figure out exactly what's happening to me right now," Saunders told Chad Konecky of USA Today High School Sports. "I just don't understand. I won National (Track and Field) Athlete of the Year? That possibility hadn't even crossed my mind. They say it takes a village to achieve your dreams and let me tell you, that's a fact."
Saunders, who inked a National Letter of Intent with SIU in March, is coming off one of the most successful seasons for a high school shot putter or track and field athlete in general. The Burke HS senior won two national shot put titles (both the indoor and outdoor New Balance national meets) and broke the the all-time girls record (previously held by two-time Olympian Michelle Carter) several times. Her latest record of 17.27m (56-08.25) set back in April would rank second indoors and third outdoors all-time in Saluki history, and would have finished fourth at both the indoor and outdoor NCAA national meets in 2014. Her mark currently rests tied for third on the 2014 IAAF World Junior performance list.
Her rise is even more impressive considering that 2014 was her first season in the national spotlight. After a disappointing junior season, Saunders started heaving the shot put from the spin technique -- an immediate improvement that saw an 11-foot PR in her first indoor meet in December.
"We did a lot of hard work over the summer, but we ourselves didn't even know the progression was going where it ended up," Saunders told USA Today. "I threw 46, then 48, then 50. But we didn't know where we were or how far we had come until I threw at the New Balance Nationals Indoor and (National Scholastic Athletic Foundation Executive Director) Jim Spier told me I had the No. 4 (prep) throw of all-time. I said, `For South Carolina?' and he said, `No, ever.' That's when I knew I was getting close, but we just sort of sheltered ourselves off and focused on continuing to improve."
Today's honor marks the second consecutive season that a future Saluki has been honored by Gatorade. In 2013, current freshman and 2014 outdoor high jump All-American, Kyle Landon, was named the Illinois Gatorade Boys High School Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
As a national honoree, though, Saunders now gets a chance to travel to Los Angeles for The ESPY Awards show on Wed., July 16, as one of 12 female finalists for the Gatorade National Female Athlete of the Year Award.
"You know, growing up, you see (The ESPYs) on TV and it's not real," Saunders told USA Today. "It's like a fairy tale and you say, `I'll probably never be at something like that.' It's pretty mind-boggling. I walk around and realize that I'm just a regular person and I wonder sometimes why everyone is making a big deal of my shot put ability. But I'm blessed and I welcome it all."
The Gatorade Player of the Year program annually recognizes one winner in the District of Columbia and each of the 50 states that sanction high school football, girls volleyball, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball, and boys and girls track & field, and awards one National Player of the Year in each sport.
In addition to athletic excellence, the award recognizes academic achievement and exemplary character on and off the field. Saunders held a steady B-average at Burke and was involved in a number of other activities outside the shot put ring and the classroom. She donated her time to SkillsUSA, a national student-empowerment organization, and was also voted senior class president and president of Burke's student government. Saunders also volunteered as Burke's bulldog mascot at athletic events for two years.
This year celebrates the program's 29th anniversary. In that time, Gatorade has honored more than 13,000 State Players of the Year and 260 National Players of the Year, including many of today's top professional athletes, such as Peyton Manning, Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, Kerri Walsh, Derek Jeter, and Emmitt Smith. For more information, visit www.gatorade.com/poy.
Quotes for this story are courtesy of Chad Konecky of USA Today High School Sports; Photography is courtesy of Gatorade's Susan Goldman.