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Kentucky’s Saunders taking flight as one of nation’s top long jumpers

Olympic Games not a leap too far for Kentucky's Sha'Keela Saunders

UK junior long jumper dreaming big after stellar start to indoor season
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UK junior long jumper dreaming big after stellar start to indoor season

It’s a long way from now until this summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil, but if anyone is capable of jumping ahead, it’s Sha’Keela Saunders.

Saunders, a junior at the University of Kentucky, soared 21 feet, 6.25 inches during the long jump event at the Hoosier Open in December, setting a meet record and an indoor personal best. The leap exceeded her second-place jump in last year’s NCAA Indoor Championships by an inch.

Her move forward has Saunders thinking big.

“This is the Olympic Trials year,” Saunders said with excitement. “I am hoping to win SECs, nationals, and go on to big things at the end.”

Saunders will lead the eighth-ranked UK women’s track and field team in this weekend’s Rod McCravy Memorial indoor meet, which the Wildcats host beginning Friday at Nutter Field House, weather permitting. Saunders competes in the 60-meter dash in addition to the long jump.

This is the Olympic Trials year. I am hoping to win SECs, nationals, and go on to big things at the end.

Sha’Keela Saunders, Kentucky junior

The meet features four Southeastern Conference teams, three Atlantic Coast Conference teams and two Big Ten teams, plus Western Kentucky, Baylor, Harvard and Houston.

With nearly two full years to go, Saunders, from Suffolk, Va., has built quite a résumé at Kentucky.

In addition to her second-place indoor finish, Saunders placed third in the long jump at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last spring. Her jump of 22 feet, 1.75 inches in that meet was the eighth-best in the nation at any level in 2015.

As a freshman, the 5-foot-6 Saunders was national runner-up in the outdoor championships.

“This year, judging off the competition at nationals, it’s going to take a lot more to win SECs and to win nationals,” Saunders said.

At the Hoosier Open at Bloomington, Ind., in December, Saunders discovered how good she might be.

“I was coming off an injury, so setting a PR (personal record) and a meet record was more than I was expecting from that meet,” Saunders said. “But I’m where I need to be. I’m better than I was last year.”

While Kentucky’s indoor season is Saunders’ current focus, the thought of the Olympics — to be held Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro — is what drives her most days.

“Oh, it’s on my mind every day,” Saunders said. “I just feel like if that’s the goal, everything else won’t be easy, but it will be easier in a sense just because to get there, I have to be able to win SECs and win nationals.”

This weekend

Rod McCravy Memorial

What: Indoor meet for collegians, unattached runners and professionals, including six who have previously competed in the World Championships of track and field.

When: Friday and Saturday (10 a.m. start both days)

Where: UK’s Nutter Field House

Admission: Free

Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (only only), beginning at noon Saturday