Archdeacon: Tonja Buford-Bailey still running strong

Tonja Buford-Bailey.
Tonja Buford-Bailey.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Olympics a reminder of how Dayton native used the Games to showcase her talents, honor family.

Nine days before she was to leave for the Tokyo Olympics, Tonja Buford-Bailey had to make a sudden trip back home to Dayton because of the unexpected death of her younger sister.

Tomica Buford died Thursday from a suspected heart attack. She was 49.

Buford-Bailey flew in late Thursday night from Texas and is scheduled to fly out this coming Saturday for Tokyo where two of the athletes she now trains with The Buford Bailey Track Club (TBBTC) – Harvard grad Gabby Thomas and Jamaican alternate Shiann Salmon – make their Olympic debuts.

Thomas – who was an NCAA sprint champ and has a degree in neurobiology and global health and policy – broke the U.S. Olympic Trials record in the 200 meters with a time of 21.61 seconds. That made her the second-fastest woman in 200-meter history behind the late Florence Griffith Joyner, who clocked 21.34 and 21.56.

Salmon finished fourth in the 400 meter hurdles at the Jamaican Olympic Trials and made her country’s reserve team, ready to fill in in Tokyo if needed.

Buford-Bailey said the experience will be invaluable for the 22-year-old Salmon. It reminds her of her first Olympic trip – to the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain – when she was just 21. It laid the groundwork for two more Olympic Games she would compete in and a pro career that took her around the globe.

Buford-Bailey is one of the most celebrated female athletes ever to call Dayton home and the Olympics have long been the place where she not only showcased herself, but honored her family, as well:

»Still a college student at Illinois in 1992, she surprised a lot of people when she made the American team in the 400-meter hurdles. She was the second youngest of the 545 Olympians the U.S. sent to Spain.

“I was a wide-eyed kid still trying to figure things out,” she admitted a few days ago.

It helped that she had a firm base built back in Dayton thanks to her mom, Georgianna Buford.

Her mother knew the hard knocks of life. She came from an abusive home and lived until she was eight in the Shawen Acres orphanage on North Main Street. At 16 she dropped out of school to have her first child.

Initially she had six kids – a seventh came later in life – and she raised them mostly on her own, working two jobs and taking no public assistance.

She had the kids work, too – they had a big paper route she drove them on in the mornings before school – and Buford-Bailey has talked about those early days getting clothes at garage sales and eating lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

With Georgianna providing the push, all six kids graduated from college and later, so did she. That led to a job working as a prison guard in Lebanon, a position she just retired from after nearly 25 years.

Once Buford-Bailey made the ’92 team, her mom’s story came out and when people learned through a Dayton Daily News’ column that she couldn’t afford to go to Barcelona, readers and others paid her way.

Buford-Bailey made it to the semifinals and the story became a celebration of mother and daughter. I know, because I was there with them on Montjuic, the famed hill that overlooks the Barcelona harbor and was the site of Estadi Olimpic, the stadium where Tonja had just run that nght.

The Olympic flame flickered above us and the colored waters of the Magic Fountain danced behind us while the voice of Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury filled the air from public address speakers everywhere.

“I know I can say I was an Olympian, but I wanted to say I was an Olympic finalist,” Tonja said softly. “Still, I know I’ve got a lot of running ahead of me – maybe two or three Olympics – and one of them will be better than this.”

And she was right.

***FROM THE TRACK & FIELD TRIALS ON 6-22-96*** Tonya Buford-Bailey runs the curve between hurdles in a heat of the 400m Hurdles. AJC PHOTO
***FROM THE TRACK & FIELD TRIALS ON 6-22-96*** Tonya Buford-Bailey runs the curve between hurdles in a heat of the 400m Hurdles. AJC PHOTO

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

»At the 1996 Games in Atlanta she was in her prime. Her effort was dedicated, in part, to her sister Crystal, just 15 months older, who as back in Dayton, wheelchair bound with Muscular Dystrophy, but just a nightly phone call away.

“Every race I run, every day I train, I do it with her in mind,” Buford-Bailey once told me. “We’re just over a year apart and that could just as easily be me. She’s a beautiful person who’s taught me a lot. The way I look at it, the strength taken from her has been given to me.”

Crystal said the same thing: “Now she’s got legs from both of us.”

With her sister giving her the mettle to medal, Buford-Bailey fought off an Achilles injury and won bronze in the 400 meter hurdles in Atlanta.

»By the 2000 Games in Sydney, she had been married to Victor Bailey, the former NFL receiver, for five years. And they had a two-year-old son VJ.

The pregnancy had been difficult and Buford-Bailey had struggled to return to running form. When she ran a disappointing 60.8 seconds at the Prefontaine Classic in 1999 – a time she had beaten as a 14-year-old – she contemplated quitting the sport.

That’s when Georgianna gave her a pep talk and the reminder their family didn’t quit..

Buford-Bailey soldiered on and surprised everyone by making the U.S. team. This time the effort was dedicated, in part, to her young son and her husband.

She wasn’t physically ready though and she knew it: “I’m not a fool. I knew what it took to get a medal, but I just didn’t have it yet.”

She didn’t advance out of the heats in Sydney, but within a year she had regrouped and pulled off a stunning victory, winning the gold medal at the Grand Prix Final in Melbourne, Australia.

“The thing is, I won that race on September 9, 2001,” she said. “It took me 17 hours to get home and I landed late on Sept 10th. I woke up the next morning and the whole world had changed.”

The Sept. 11 attacks had crumbled the World Trade Center towers, battered the Pentagon and crashed an airliner in Pennsylvania – killing thousands.

“I didn’t get on another flight for a year,” Tonja said.

She briefly taught fourth grade in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but soon became a successful college coach, first at Illinois and then the University of Texas. Both places she ended up serving as the head women’s coach and in 2016 became the first women ever honored as the USATF Nike Coach of the Year.

After missing the 2004 Games in Greece and 2008 in Beijing, she returned to the Olympics as a U.S assistant coach in London in 2012 and four years later in Rio she was a personal coach to four athletes who won five medals.

»Now comes Tokyo and again her family is on her mind.

“Tomica and I were the closest,” Tonja said Saturday afternoon. “We were just a year apart. We started our track together when we were kids and ran track together in high school.

“She has a daughter who was really doing well in track now and another about to start medical school.

“This is just so unexpected. Just so tough.”

As young track girls Tomica Buford (left) and Tonja Buford. CONTRIBUTED
As young track girls Tomica Buford (left) and Tonja Buford. CONTRIBUTED

Olympic dream

Tonja was an 8-year-old second grader at Townview Elementary when the morning PA announcements included an offer to sign up for the Northwest Track Club.

She knew she was the fastest kid – among boys and girls – on the playground, so she excitedly told her mom about the possibility. But there was a catch. It cost $20 to sign up and that was a burden for a single parent with all those mouths to feed.

Georgianna – always working, always finding a way – came up with enough money so both Tonja and Tomica could join the club run by Lefty and Brenda Martin.

The Martin’s daughter, LaVonna, one of the stars of the team, was four years older than Tonja and became the person she looked up to, her sometimes babysitter and the person whose hand-me-down spikes she later wore.

Buford-Bailey became a four-time state hurdles champion at Meadowdale High School, but in those mid-teen years the Olympics still were a surreal concept to her.

Although Edwin Moses – who for years had set the gold standard in the hurdles – was from Dayton, she said he was a “bigger than life hero who didn’t seem real.”

But then LaVonna represented the United States in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, and Buford-Bailey said she thought: “OK, this is real.”

Buford-Bailey went to the University of Illinois, where she was the four-time Big Ten track athlete of the year, a 10-time All American and won 25 individual and relay titles, the most in Big Ten history. In 1992 she was the NCAA 400-meter hurdles champion and four years ago she was enshrined in the Illinois Hall of Fame.

When she was just 20, she won bronze at the Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba and a year later she and Martin were Olympic teammates – and roommates – in Barcelona.

Martin won a silver medal in the 100-meter hurdles and Buford-Bailey laid the groundwork for the international career that hit a high point three years later when she and teammate Kim Batten both broke the 400 meter hurdles world record at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Batten won and Buford-Bailey finished .01 of a second behind her, still the seventh fastest time ever recorded in 400 meter hurdles history.

At the 1996 Games, the torch was passed. Martin, who had had a child beforehand, didn’t advance out of the U.S. Trials and Buford-Bailey went on to win bronze.

Even though she doesn’t have that medal on display, she said: “It means a lot. It’s not so much the hardware, but just what it means to me. It stands for hard work and a passion for the sport

“The Olympics are a huge dream for anyone who competes at this level, but they’re also tied to so much emotion. You see dreams come true, dreams that are postponed and failed dreams that come with so much raw emotion.

“That’s why winning a medal means so much.”

Tonja Buford (center) uses her mother Georgianna's back as support as she and Lavonna Martin (behind left) sign autographs at Courthouse Square following the Olympic Parade in August, 1992. DDN STAFF FILE
Tonja Buford (center) uses her mother Georgianna's back as support as she and Lavonna Martin (behind left) sign autographs at Courthouse Square following the Olympic Parade in August, 1992. DDN STAFF FILE

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

‘A pretty good investment’

When VJ was a little boy, Buford-Bailey accepted a speaking engagement at his school.

“When he found out, he said, ‘Mom, what are YOU gonna talk about?’” she recalled.

“I said, ‘Well, I thought maybe the Olympics.’”

“The Olympics?” he said a bit underwhelmed.

The response still makes her chuckle: “He thought everybody’s mommy was at the Olympics. He though that’s what all moms did.

“I said, ‘No, it’s pretty special to go to the Olympics.’”

VJ went on to become a 2,429-point scorer at McNeil High School in Austin and then spent two years on the University of Oregon basketball team. He transferred to Tennessee. where he’s now a 6-foot-4 redshirt senior who already has his political science degree. He was the Vols’ third-leading scorer last season, averaging 10.9 points per game.

His sister Victoria is a volleyball player who just graduated from high school and is taking a gap year before college.

Buford-Bailey’s sister, Crystal, died in January of 2019. She, too, was 49 and had lived far longer than doctors thought she would.

“I think she just hung around for all of us – even when it was so tough for her at the end – because she knew how much we wanted her to be here,” Buford-Bailey said. “She inspired all of us.”

After coaching at Illinois and Texas for 16 years, Buford-Bailey started her own club in Austin in 2019 for elite women hurdlers and sprinters.

Today she has eight athletes. Two medaled at the 2016 Rio Games: Ashley Spencer won bronze in the 400 meter hurdles and Morolake Akinosun won gold with the 4 by 100 relay team.

While running her own club is different than college coaching, where she sometimes had 30 athletes (men and women) in her charge and had to recruit and worry about compliance issues and other concerns, she said some things have remained a constant throughout her career.

They go back to her Dayton days and those familial lessons and that good fortune that followed once she heard that PA announcement as a second grader and got the hard-eared $20 from her mom.

“It was a pretty good investment,” she said. “It took a little girl from Dayton and opened up the whole world to her.”