On the eve of the Florida awards ceremony where she will be honored as the top track and field coach in the nation, Tonja Buford-Bailey, now the interim co-head track coach at the University of Texas, thought back to the time when she didn’t even know there was such a sport.
She was an 8-year-old Dayton second-grader sitting in her classroom at Townview Elementary when the PA crackled with an announcement:
Students could join the Northwest Track Club.
She said the invitation fascinated her:
“I was like ‘Whaaaat? People actually do this as a sport? They race?’ I didn’t even know there was such a thing as organized track.
“All I knew was that I could beat people on the playground. It wasn’t anything organized, it was just ‘Hey, let’s run!’ And I was just faster than everybody — the boys and the girls.”
Following the announcement, a flier was handed out in class with the particulars. She brought it home to her mom, but there was one catch:
It cost $20 to sign up.
“That was a huge amount of money for us,” Tonja said. “There were six kids and one kid didn’t get $20 for themselves.”
Although her mom, Georgianna Buford, was still married at the time, the couple would soon divorce. And life would be tough. But then that’s the way it had been for Georgianna much of her life.
She lived in the now-defunct Shawen Acres orphanage on North Main Street until she was 8, and at 16 she quit high school and had her first child.
But throughout her life Georgianna refused to go on public assistance and after she split from Tonja’s father, she worked two jobs and did what she could to provide for the family.
Tonja said they shopped for clothes at garage sales, ate a lot of casseroles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and all the kids had jobs.
“We delivered newspapers every morning before school started,” Tonja recalled by phone from Austin the other day. “Mom drove the car and all of us would jump out and cover the streets, one on each side, and the boys would do the corner houses.
“I was partnered with my sister Crystal because I was the fastest and could cover more ground.”
Although not yet diagnosed, Crystal already was showing the initial signs of her muscular dystrophy. “She struggled walking a little and wasn’t as strong, so I did double time,” Tonja said. “I’d finish my side of the street and then come back up hers until we met.
“What we made helped all of us get through.”
It also provided the money for Tonja and another sister, Tamika, to sign up for the track club. And for Tonja that began a lifelong connection to Northwest coach Harold “Lefty” Martin, his wife Brenda and their family, especially daughter LaVonna, who would be an Olympic medal winner as a hurdler and an inspiration for Tonja.
That initial $20 sign-up launched a Cinderella-like career for Tonja.
“It took a little girl from Dayton and opened up a whole world to her,” she once said.
She would become a four-time state hurdling champ at Meadowdale High School and then go to the University of Illinois, where she won 25 Big Ten titles as a sprinter, hurdler and relay runner, was four times named Big Ten athlete of the year and was the 1992 NCAA 400-meter hurdles champ.
She competed in three Olympics — the 1992 Barcelona Games, Atlanta in 1996 where she won a bronze medal in the 400 hurdles, and the 2000 Sydney Games — and had an impressive pro career competing all over the world.
After that she forged a new path as a coach, first working with Gary Winckler, her longtime coach and mentor at Illinois, then assisting with the U.S. Olympic team at the 2012 London Games and, a year later, moving to the University of Texas at Austin, where she was the men’s and women’s sprint coach and now serves as an interim head coach.
Over the past year, athletes in her charge won three Olympic medals at the Rio Games and six NCAA titles.
Saturday at the Jesse Owens Awards in Orlando she will be honored as the Nike Coach of the Year.
Since the award’s inception in 1998, this will be the first time in USA Track and Field history a woman has been honored individually as the top coach in the country.
‘Always an Olympian’
Tonja spoke last month at a gathering of Girl Scouts and brought her bronze medal.
“The girls were really impressed,” she laughed. “We were just coming off an Olympics, so that added to it, but regardless, kids just love to touch Olympic medals.”
When she was their age the Olympics seemed just as magical and just as distant, even though revered Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses was from Dayton, too.
“I was from the same hometown as Edwin Moses and that was cool, but I didn’t see him as a real person,” she said. “He was more like a bigger-than-life hero.
“But when LaVonna made it to the Olympics, it was like, ‘OK, this is something more real.’ I was in her dad’s program. She had babysat me at track meets and I used to wear her hand-me-down spikes because we couldn’t afford new ones.
“I looked up to her and there she was in the Olympic Games (Seoul 1988). Suddenly it was like, ‘Oh this is a real possibility. Why can’t I go, too?’ ’’
Four years later that’s just what happened.
Tonja surprised everybody and became the second-youngest track athlete to make the Barcelona-bound Olympic team. She ran the 400-meter hurdles and was there to see LaVonna win silver in the 100-meter hurdles.
At the Atlanta Games, Tonja ran with an Achilles injury and still managed to win a bronze.
After that she took two years off to deal with her injury and — already married to NFL wide receiver Victor Bailey — give birth to son V.J.
The pregnancy had been troubling — she he had been sick for months — but she began training again in December 1998, three months after her son was born, and she again stunned everyone by making the 2000 Olympic team.
After she went into coaching, she had the three USA uniforms of her Olympic Games framed and mounted on her office wall — a sign of enduring accomplishment.
“You’re always and forever an Olympian,” she said. “That’s something I’m really proud of.”
‘Groomed’ to coach
Just nine days shy of 46, Tonja is well into her life as a college coach, wife and mother. A couple of weeks ago, V.J. committed to play basketball at the University of Oregon. Daughter Victoria is 13 and a volleyball player.
And yet she remains tied to Dayton and tries to return when she can. Her mother lives in the Huber Heights area and Tonja especially comes to see Crystal, whose MD has become much more challenging.
Crystal was 15 when diagnosed and within 18 months was wheelchair bound. Even so, some things didn’t change with her, especially the Georgianna-ingrained work ethic and the desire to better yourself educationally.
Just as Crystal made her mark at Sinclair, several of the other kids went on to get their bachelor’s and master’s degrees and Georgianna has gotten one college degree and is now working on another.
At Saturday’s awards ceremony, Tonja will have the two early cornerstones of her life and career — her mom and the Martins, Lefty and Brenda — there with her.
Just as Georgianna guided her, so did Martin.
“He was a no-nonsense person,” Tonja said. “You knew that if you ran for him, but you also knew he always looked after his athletes and he helped them find a college afterward.”
She said she often draws on his lessons today, just the way she does on her former Illinois coach, Gary Winckler, who encouraged her to become a coach and gave here opportunities to learn alongside him.
“I was groomed into coaching, which is the best way,” she said. “I learned all facets of it rather than just being dropped into a job without first building a background as far as managing a team and showing leadership.”
She learned her lessons well, something that was underscored when Texas senior Morlolake Akinosun — who anchored the women’s gold medal-winning 4x100 meter relay team in Rio and was named the Big 12 performer of the year – talked to reporters recently about her coach:
“Coach Bailey is so much more than just my coach. She’s a mother figure, adviser, mentor, friend, and someone who believes in me. She cares about me and everyone that she coaches as a person first and then an athlete. … I’m extremely happy for her and honored to be coached by the Nike coach of the year.”
And the fact that she’s the first woman to win the honor outright — two were co-coaches with men in the past — resonates even more.
“What’s really valuable about it is that it’s the first time a female has won it,” Tonja said. “That speaks louder than anything.
“It shows, as women, we work and grind as hard as anybody to get our athletes where they need to be. And that’s the same across all sports and all disciplines, not just track.
“Eventually we want it known that we can lead any sport. There really is no difference. We hold our own.”
Then again, she proved that long ago on the playground at Townview Elementary when she looked at the other girls — and all the boys — and said:
“Hey, let’s run!”