Sha’Keela Saunders Puts Her Mind To It

A change in attitude helped put Sha’Keela Saunders on Team USA last summer. (KEVIN MORRIS)

TWO WEEKS BEFORE last summer’s USATF Championships, Sha’Keela Saunders was a wreck. The 4th-placer in the ’16 Olympic Trials long jump, she hadn’t come within a foot of her PR of 22-7¾ (6.90) all year. She went to the Texas track office to see Edrick Floréal, her coach of the last 7 years.

“I just flopped down,” she reveals. “I said, ‘I don’t feel prepared.’ And he looked at me because he’s been here with me several times and he said, ‘Shak, I believe in you 100%. Your mind is your biggest enemy. I have no worries about you at the championship.’

“And I just sat there and cried because I told him, ‘That’s not helping. I need an answer. We need to do something. Give me some more abs or something.’ And he just looked at me and shook his head. He said, ‘I’m telling you. You got to get out of your mind. You gotta go out there and just let your mind go and’—in his words—‘take your foot out of your a**.’

“I went home and I cried and did abs until I couldn’t anymore. And then something happened. I was doing my devotionals and reading and I went to see The Lion King and while I was watching, Simba took his hand and flicked it in the water and saw his father and himself and that’s when I realized, ‘I’m not all alone.’ That moment right there just took some weight off me and I went into USAs a lot lighter.”

It showed. Saunders did her best jumping of the year, reaching 22-3 (6.78) in 3rd and making the Doha squad.

“I thought it was going to continue. I thought that was my breakthrough,” she says. But as the season went on, her ankle and Achilles kept bothering her. In Doha, she says, “I was really afraid to jump. Every time I got to another round, it was like a blessing… and it was really, really painful.”

She made the final by just a centimeter and then placed 9th at 21-5½ (6.54). “That was the most painful competition I ever had,” she says.

In the off-season, an MRI turned up a stress fracture in her tibia as well as torn ligaments. “I don’t know how long that was going on,” she says, “but I’m hoping that’s what made me jump so poorly last season. I hope it wasn’t just me.”

Now 26, the Kentucky grad (she has degrees in Kinesiology and Family Science) says, “I’ve gotten it treated. I’ve sat out the amount of time they asked me to sit out and I feel like it’s on the road to being completely healed again.”

When the COVID-19 quarantine hit, Saunders left Austin—where she is a volunteer assistant for the Longhorns—and joined her mother, who is on active duty military, at her base in North Carolina.

“I’m able to train,” she says, at a nearby high school track. She also has solo access to a weightroom. She has a virtual meeting with Floréal every week. Yet she notes that he’s not physically present, a crucial distinction.

“When he says 6 reps on the paper, I actually do 6 reps. But if I was with him, 6 would turn into 10, so there may be the difference,” she says with a laugh. “Right now everything feels well.”

Recruited to Kentucky as a heptathlete after producing high school bests of 11.97, 24.42, 55.32, 5-4¼ (1.63), 20-½ (6.11) and 40-3½ (12.28), Saunders arrived on campus with a torn ACL and spent her first year healing.

“Coach Flo didn’t recruit me,” she explains. He was at Stanford at the time and he came that summer to Kentucky, fired all the coaches who did recruit me and told me I’ll be a long jumper.”

Her next season (’14) confirmed his hunch. In a campaign strewn with PRs, Saunders popped a 21-1¼ (6.43) to lead the NCAA East and then matched it for 2nd in the championship.

In ’15, she improved to 22-1¾ (6.75) for 3rd at NCAAs, matched it for a USATF 5th and won bronze at the Pan-Ams.

The next year, after an NCAA Indoor runner-up finish she failed to qualify outdoors, but bounced back with a 22-7¼ (6.89) that had her on the Olympic team until the final round when Janay DeLoach jumped little more than an inch farther.

Despite all her success, Saunders admits that she didn’t get serious until her senior year, explaining “Just coming in 4th place at the Olympic Trials made me realize that this man knows what he’s talking about and this could really go somewhere, you know?”

Her lifetime best came at the ’17 NCAA Indoor, which she won at 22-7¾ (6.90). She made the team for the Worlds in London but didn’t get to the final.

As a pro in ’18, Saunders won USATF, ranking No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 7 in the world. “It was one of my best years competing,” she says, “but there was no championship.”

These days, like every other athlete, she faces the challenge of training through the pandemic—and putting her spare time to work. Several years ago she took up painting. Now, she says, “I’m actually being really creative with my family. We turned my grandmother’s room into a movie theater, we’re playing karaoke, I made an ice cream truck donation thing around the neighborhood where I put the ice cream song on the car and go around and give out ice cream. And I’m cutting grass.”

It’s hard to imagine Saunders not being busy. Quick with a laugh, she is just as quick to show a big heart. She sometimes has dinner with friends who stay in a homeless shelter. When she is done jumping, she says, “I will find a way to help homeless people.”

With five straight years of global meets now tentatively on the schedule, Saunders is thrilled, pointing out, “That really opens up more money opportunity for field events—honestly, for everyone. I’m very excited for that.” She acknowledges that she will need to work for it. “You can never get comfortable in this sport. The grind doesn’t stop. I have to be just as dedicated and focused as I was that senior year that I bought into Coach Flo.”

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