As the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are set to kick off next month, members of the Ole Miss Track and Field team will certainly be playing a part in the action. Rebel track and field head coach Connie Price-Smith, assistant coach and hammer thrower Gwen Berry, as well as sophomore shot putter Raven Saunders held a press conference last Wednesday to talk about their upcoming trip to Brazil.
Connie Price-Smith is no stranger to competing on the world scale. A four time Olympian and two-time Pan-American Games gold medalist, this year she’ll have a different role: on the sidelines, as the head coach of the United States women’s track and field team.
“It is exciting to be the head coach of athletes that are going to the Olympics with me,” Price-Smith said. “Ole Miss has seven athletes, present and future, that are traveling down to Rio. It’s exciting and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Price-Smith spoke highly of the Rebels that would be accompanying her in Rio and when asked if gold medals were on the table, she replied that she wouldn’t count anything out.
“Going into the NCAA and the trials, for me and my opinion, I expected both of them (Berry and Saunders) to go down there and travel with me,” Price-Smith said. “It doesn’t feel any different than it did before we got started. What I am looking forward to is those two getting out there and competing to the best of their abilities on the days that they compete. We are having a good time doing it.”
Berry, a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the current holder of the American women’s hammer throw record, will be going to her first Olympic games next month.
“It’s a good feeling. I had confidence in myself that I would make the team,” Berry said. “I wasn’t as happy as everyone else probably because I didn’t have my greatest performance (at the Olympic Trials), but I am really grateful. Working with and growing up with coach Connie at Southern Illinois, coming here to Ole Miss and training with all the student-athletes, like Raven, has been a good feeling. I’m glad to have a couple teammates going with me.”
As a black athlete, she hopes to set a positive example for children across the country.
“You see Serena Williams, you see a lot of women’s basketball stars, but you don’t really see a lot of female African-Americans that are highly represented in sports,” Berry said. “There are maybe two or three that the kids know about. To bring in more kids into the sport may keep more kids off the street. It may prevent kids getting pregnant at a younger age, and becoming mothers and not fulfill their dreams. It really says a lot that we are here. But I think we speak for everyone when we say that we want to represent America in the best possible way, not just for African-American females, but for all Americans.”
Saunders, the current women’s NCAA shot put record holder, will also be attending her first Olympic games this year. The Rebel sophomore made it clear just how much this honor means to her.
“I was really shocked,” Saunders said. “I was in first, still going into the last throw. Even on Michelle (Carter’s) last throw where she won, I basically started crying at the fact that I am an Olympian. Not a lot of athletes can say that. To finally see that all of my work had paid off in that one, split moment. It brought me to tears.”
Saunders has made a lot of progress in a Rebel uniform in order to be able to compete in Rio, highlighting improvements in her technique.
“I learned to use my legs better since I’m five-foot-five inches,” Saunders said. “That is something that I really had to do with people that are competing that are six-foot plus. So that in itself is one of the big things for me, is learning to use my strength into my throw.”
Saunders also felt like she had made progress off the field.
“Outside of the ring, I have been growing up,” Saunders said. “It is tough coming to a college and being a freshman and making freshman mistakes and still having that expectation of being a student-athlete and trying to rise to your potential. I have grown up a lot.”
For now, Saunders is completely focused on competing in Rio.
“For me, it comes down to performance. This has been the goal coming down,” Saunders said. “When we think about Rio, it was being in the Olympic stadium in those rings rather than being outside of the competition. Maybe once we get down there we will plan a few things, but hopefully we go down there and get some personal records.”