Raven Saunders was a pretty good shot putter as a straight glider, simply starting low in the circle and turning into the throw with a high finish.
The Burke High School (South Carolina) standout won the Class AA state title in the event in 2013 with a throw of 35 feet, 6 inches. But the SIU signee wasn't satisfied, and toyed with the spin technique, which requires much different timing and footwork. Eight months later, Saunders broke the all-class South Carolina high school record by more than 11 feet, won the national championship in her signature event indoors and outdoors, and became the No. 1 shot putter in the country.
"Freshman year I was a power thrower, but then I went on YouTube and I saw the glide, and I thought I would gain footage on my throws," Saunders said on Wednesday, shortly after being named the Gatorade national girls track and field athlete of the year. "I felt like I could do all I could do in the glide."
She began working on her spin technique eight months ago, and jumped further in two months than most throwers do in two years. Saunders won the state title in the shot put with a throw of 55-8.25, setting a new state record. It was more than 20 feet further than her championship throw at the state meet the year prior. In April, she threw 56-8.25.
"In my practices, I was improving by six inches to a foot every three to four weeks," Saunders said. "Some people gain inches over a span of a couple years, so I just continued with it."
The 5-foot-5 powerhouse said she chose SIU because of head coach Connie Price-Smith, who was a four-time Olympian in the shot, and assistant coach John Smith, who has a history of developing throwers. If she jumped more than 10 feet in a year in high school, imagine how far Saunders could improve with more intensive coaching and the college athlete environment.
"There is a big learning curve, but some people are just natural rotational athletes," Price-Smith said. "If you can kick it off and do it well, and you'll see the big jumps in her career this year. Obviously, it was a great choice by her coach, and now it's going to be building on that technique and making it more solid, and better."