Raven Saunders, a two-time NCAA Champion during her career with the Ole Miss track & field team, became just the third American woman to ever medal in the shot put after a rousing silver medal performance at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games on Sunday morning local time (Saturday night CDT).
This caps an epic comeback story for Saunders, who burst back onto the global scene earlier this year and made Team USA in bombastic fashion alongside former training partner and current Ole Miss volunteer assistant coach, Jessica Ramsey. Both made today’s final after qualifying performances on Friday morning (CDT), but it was Saunders who took command early and stayed in the medal hunt this time, as Ramsey’s spectacular run to the Olympics came to a close in 12th place.
Saunders wasted no time in the final, opening the competition at 19.65m/64-05.75 to take an early lead before eventual gold medal winner Lijiao Gong of China took over at 19.95m/65-05.50. Saunders unleashed a mammoth heave on her second attempt that might have challenged for the gold, but recorded a foul after she swiped her toe across the board and fell outside the ring. She was consistent on her third attempt at 19.62m/64-04.50 to hang onto second place after a slight improvement by Gong to 19.98m/65-06.75 – setting up an exciting final among Gong, Saunders and two-time Olympic gold medalist (and eventual bronze medalist) Valerie Adams of New Zealand.
Over her next three tries, Saunders never wavered from second place, tossing 19.49m/63-11.50 in the fourth round, improving to her eventual best of 19.79m/64-11.25 in the fifth round, and fouling once more in the final set of throws. Gong, meanwhile, took a commanding lead in the fifth round at 20.53m/67-04.25 and improved again on her final attempt at 20.58m/67-06.25 to wrap up the gold medal victory.
Saunders’ silver medal performance makes her one of just five Rebel athletes in Ole Miss Athletics history to have earned an Olympic medal, joining Jennifer Gillom in 1988 with Team USA basketball in Seoul (gold), Tony Dees in 1992 with Team USA in the men’s 110-meter hurdles in Barcelona (silver), Brittney Reese for Team USA in the women’s long jump in both 2012 at the London Games (gold) and 2016 at the Rio Games (silver), and Sam Kendricks in 2016 for Team USA in the men’s pole vault in Rio (bronze). Furthermore, Saunders joins Reese as the only medalists in the history of the Ole Miss women’s track & field program.
Nationally, her medal holds even more importance in an event long sought after by the U.S. delegation. She now stands as one of just three American women to ever medal in the shot put alongside Earlene Brown’s bronze medal in Rome in 1960 and Michelle Carter’s historic gold medal win in Rio in 2016. This adds to Saunders’ legacy from 2016, when in Rio she became the youngest American to ever make the Olympic final at just 20 years old, en route to a fifth-place finish as an Ole Miss sophomore. From 1960 to 2012, the highest American finisher at the Olympics in the women’s shot put was current Ole Miss head coach Connie Price-Smith, who finished fifth at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Michelle Carter finished fourth in 2012 before her gold in 2016.
In action elsewhere on Saturday, Brittney Reese set herself up for a run at a third career Olympic medal after advancing through qualifying in the women’s long jump. Reese’s second-attempt leap of 6.86m/22-06.25 (+0.3) was good enough for third overall in qualifying and was the top mark in Group A. Reese now stands as one of just three American women to ever make four career Olympic long jump finals alongside Willye White (1956, ’60, ’64, ’68, ’72) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1984, ’88, ’92, ’96). Reese took fourth in Beijing in 2008 right out of her stellar Ole Miss career before winning gold in London in 2012 and narrowly taking silver in Rio in 2016. The women’s long jump final is set for Mon., Aug. 2 at 8:50 p.m. CT.
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics