Column: Virginia's Jahnelle Saunders Could Be The Nation's Next Great Heptathlete

When the man they call 'Coach O' grabs you by the arm and says, 'You have to talk to this girl,' there's little you do but listen. 

Charles Oliver has built his reputation on his success in track and field, and over the years it's come in various forms. In 1972, he was one of Georgia's best athletes in high school, running the 400m in 48.8 seconds. Later, he won a national championship at Troy State and ran a school best 45.74, becoming an All-American. 

After that he was a wildly successful coach at Troy State and then the University of Tennessee, where he coached until 2009. In recent years, he's joined AAU as its National Chair and run his Coach O business platform, which deals with registration and event management. 

"This girl is going to be the next great heptathlete," he says to me.

And so you follow. 

My first impression of Jahnelle Saunders, who stands about 5-foot-9, is that she's likely a high school graduate giving the AAU Junior Olympics one last hurrah before college. She's tall and athletic and wears an "I've been here before" look. But this is not the case. 

Saunders, a native of Hampton, Virginia, is just 13 years old and she's a rising freshman at powerhouse Phoebus High. 

At the AAU Junior Olympic Games, she went on to win the girls age 14 pentathlon with a dominant performance of 3438 points, which was a little over 200 points off the national record. But no one came close to her in any event outside the 800. She dominated in the 100m hurdles (14.48), long jump (5.07m), shot put (12.19 m), and high jump (5-5). 

She later added an open win in the girls age 14 high jump (5-5), a victory in the triple jump (36-7.75), a third-place nod in the 100m hurdles (14.63), and a fourth-place finish in the long jump (17-10.25).

"I just think she's been successful during her career," Oliver said. "I think she's really dedicated and focused and she wants to be one of the best athletes in the country." 

The hurdles, she said, was slightly disappointing, if only because she had broken a 100 meter hurdles record at the AAU Club Championships previously held by Olympian heptathlete Kendall Williams in a PB of 14.20 seconds. 

"It was okay," she says. 

Still: nine events, a pentathlon title, two open wins, and two others medals isn't bad. Down the road, if Saunders chooses to go the route of the heptathlon, she'll add two more events, including the 200m and javelin throw.  

She's already being referred to as Wonder Woman to some.

"She's powerful, she's brave, she never gives up in what she believes in and she always tries to do what she knows she can do," Saunders says.

A year ago at the Games -- at the age of 12 -- Saunders finished second in the pentathlon, scoring 3,364 points. 

"It's fun and I like competition, so once I get on the track I have to give it my all," she says. "Or you won't get what you want." 

Some believe she has a chance to win a state title next year -- a state team title. 

"Dominating others your age isn't the same as in high school," says Nolan Jez, the state editor of Virginia's "To put it plainly, she is just on another level." 

But if competition was the only variable motivating Saunders, she would be easy to pin down. In recent years, she's dealt with much more, seeing two close coaches pass away. 

"There are plenty of times I wanted to quit," Saunders says. "Two of my coaches died. My multi coach had died last year and my long jump coach died three years ago. Every time I think about quitting, I said I'm not going to quit because they wouldn't want me to do it." 

Her mother has been her driving force. Chineta Jackson-Davis is an assistant coach with Phoebus High and roughly 25 years ago won a state championship with the same program as a relay member. 

"I want to do what she passed on," Saunders says of her mother's history in track. "I want to win state as a freshman." 

Saunders began competing in track at the age of eight, inheriting much her mother's gift. But her mother believes other aspects contributed to her fast rise, too. Years ago, Saunders competed in Pop Warner football, learning not only how to throw a football, but also how to cut laterally and drive up the field with power.

Throwing a football helped her in a lot of ways, Saunders said, including the transition to the javelin and shot put. 

"Because she came out from doing football at age nine to running 28s in the 200 and running real strong in the 100," Chaneta says, "we took that speed and converted that to being a hurdler. She was an awesome sprinter." 

Saunders ultimately developed a mental strength, too. 

"I'm a tough girl," she says. "I have mostly brothers, so I can take a hit. I can take all that." 

Heading into her freshman season at Phoebus, Saunders hasn't backed down from high aspirations. While Virginia's governing body doesn't offer the heptathlon or pentathlon, she'll likely be a four-event athlete and could perform at national meets outside the state. 

"I can get records," she said. "I  can break Kendall William's records down the line." 

Soon enough, she says, you'll begin to see Jahnelle Saunders more than ever, likely at the state championships, likely at another national meet, likely even, perhaps, at the Olympics some day. 

"Aside from her nickname, Wonder Woman, her highest title could come in four years when she is the head of the class," Jez said. 

Perhaps, then, Coach O knows a gem when he sees it. 

"Being  a multi-eventer, there is a possibility she can win a state title by herself," Oliver said. "An athlete of that caliber can win several events, so she could potentially propel her team to a title." 


Contact National Content Producer Cory Mull at or Tweet him @bycorymull

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