A world and Olympic medallist in the 400m hurdles, Tonja Buford-Bailey can look back on a successful career as an athlete. Now a coach to some of America's finest up-and-coming track talents, she continues to excel in the sport. 

Every lane on the backstretch is being utilised at the University of Texas track this morning.

In lane two, world indoor champion Courtney Okolo glides between cones through 150-metre sprint intervals. In lane three, Olympic bronze medallist Ashley Spencer towers over the hurdles placed in her path. Towards the halfway turn, world and Olympic relay champion Morolake Akinosun coaches NCAA champion Teahna Daniels through a gear change drill.

The track is buzzing with energy as several different workouts take place at the same time, and one woman is at the centre of it all.

With her phone in one hand and a set of cones in the other, Tonja Buford-Bailey is on the move. After filming Okolo sprint away, she checks in on the workout with Akinosun and Daniels before putting her arm around Spencer. Just as the athletes are in constant motion on the track, Buford-Bailey never stops.

By all appearances it’s a very busy training session with multiple Olympians, NCAA champions, and All-Americans in attendance but to Buford-Bailey it’s just another day as the interim head coach of the Texas track team.

It’s been almost three and a half months since Buford-Bailey was named to the position after former programme leader Mario Sategna was let go by the university in February. When Longhorns Athletic Director Chris Del Conte said that the programme needed a new direction, he asked Buford-Bailey to lead the way. Now in her fifth season at Texas, she spent the first four years as an associate head coach of the sprints, hurdles, and relays. Since her arrival, those event groups have won 11 NCAA titles and earned a total of 141 All-American honours. A three-time Olympian and bronze medallist in the 400m hurdles, Buford-Bailey was also the personal coach of five Longhorns at the 2016 Rio Games, four of which earned medals.

If Buford-Bailey is named head coach permanently, she would be the sixth woman to lead a men’s and women’s team among the 60 Power Five track and field programmes in the country.

Learning how to lose

After completing her session in the spring heat, Okolo rests on the floor of the hallway. Normally on the soft-spoken side, she is eager to talk about Buford-Bailey. After a few deep breaths and a cup of Gatorade, she begins to reflect on her coach that just served up a tough workout.

When Okolo competed for Buford-Bailey at Texas, she earned eight NCAA crowns, broke the collegiate record in the 400m, and became the first Longhorn to win the prestigious Bowerman Award. After graduating, Okolo earned gold as a member of the United States’ 2016 Olympic 4x400m team and the 2018 world indoor team. Her most recent notable victory came at the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, where she claimed her first individual title in the 400m.

Over time, Okolo has grown to appreciate her coach’s honest and individualised approach. While the majority of her running career is occupied by wins, it was actually a significant loss that became a turning point in her career.

Heading into the 2016 Olympic Trials, Okolo was heavily favoured to make her first Olympic team. She had just broken her own collegiate record with a career best of 49.71, the second-fastest mark in the world at the time. But in the highly anticipated 400m final, Okolo finished a distant sixth and missed her opportunity to compete for Team USA in the open sprint.

Okolo admits that she is the type of athlete who will beat herself up after a disappointing race, and this performance was no exception. Knowing this pattern, Buford-Bailey approached her athlete with consideration. Okolo recalls the conversation as the crucial moment where she learned how to lose.

“She told me that the loss didn’t define me and my career,” Okolo says. “Before that meet, I would take losses a lot harder and now I don’t let it ruin my confidence. It taught me to have a short-term memory and keep moving.”

“She’s not going to let her ego get in the way and I’m not going to let my ego get in the way. The only goal is to run fast,” she explains.

Courtney Okolo wins the IAAF World Indoor Championships (Getty Images)

Running for her

Before practice begins, Spencer takes a moment to share her thoughts on Buford-Bailey, who has become an unofficial family member to her longtime athlete. The duo met when Buford-Bailey recruited Spencer at Illinois. At the end of her official visit, Spencer says she was ready to sign immediately and when she arrived in Champaign, they became inseparable.

“She has become my second mom and my best friend,” Spencer says. “Aside from her trying to kill me at practice, we have a really close bond.”

While running for the Fighting Illini, Spencer won two NCAA titles and two world junior gold medals. She had just made the 2013 IAAF World Championship team when she received the devastating news that Buford-Bailey was leaving Illinois for Texas. “When she told me that, I dropped my phone, I tripped, I almost got hit by a car because I couldn’t believe what I had just heard,” she recalls.

Spencer chose Illinois because of Buford-Bailey and knew that she had to follow the woman who helped guide her to unprecedented success in two short years. During the summer of 2013, Spencer and Akinosun (a soon-to-be sophomore at the time) made a pact together: they would follow Buford-Bailey to Texas.

Both athletes went on to earn a combined 27 All-American honours for the Longhorns. By 2016, Spencer was poised to make her first Olympic team. She competed in the 400m sprint and the 400m hurdles at the 2016 Olympic Trials, an extremely difficult double that requires a total of six rounds. When she faded to seventh in the 400m final, Spencer was devastated and knew she had to regroup for the 400m hurdles, her last chance to make the Olympic team. Buford-Bailey did not hold back when reminding her athlete that she was more than capable of competing in Rio.

“She said, ‘of all the things we’ve trained, of all the things we’ve practiced, that’s what you need to focus on. Don’t worry about the other seven women in the race. You focus on you and trust what we’ve done and you’ll make the team. It’s already in there, you just need to believe it’s there’,” Spencer recalls. 

She had only picked up the event in the previous year, but she was determined to earn her spot for her coach, who still stands as the fifth-fastest 400m hurdler of all time. Out of lane eight, Spencer placed second in the final with a then-personal best of 54.02. Fittingly, she received her medal from Buford-Bailey on the podium.

“When the gun went off, I knew that I was no longer running for myself. I was running for my parents, my sister, my nana, and I was running for my coach because she is a three-time 400m hurdle Olympian. I couldn’t let that go to waste,” Spencer said.

Tonja Buford-Bailey and Ashley Spencer celebrate in Rio (Tonja Buford-Bailey)

Building trust

After coaching Daniels through her gear change workout, Akinosun takes a few moments in the locker room hallway to talk about her mentor. When Buford-Bailey was named interim head coach in February, she extended another leadership opportunity to her athlete.

The pair met when Akinosun was just 15-years-old. Her older sister was being recruited to Illinois and Akinosun immediately connected with Buford-Bailey during her home visit. She still credits the coach as the reason she committed to Illinois, came to Texas, and remained in Austin to begin her professional career.

Unfortunately in January, Akinosun suffered an Achilles injury and was forced to sit out for the 2018 season. While in recovery, she started to work as a volunteer coach for the Longhorns. When Buford-Bailey was named interim head coach, she offered Akinosun a paid assistant position on the coaching staff.

Today’s workout with Daniels marked the first time that Buford-Bailey gave Akinosun the permission to create her own workout for another athlete. And Akinosun embraced the opportunity. After six years of executing Buford-Bailey’s workouts, she was ready to pass on her knowledge.

“She gave me free rein and didn’t really give me real instructions as to exactly what workout she was going to do. She just told me what she wanted her to do today: work on transitions and that was it,” Akinosun says.

“I think that was a huge sign that she really trusts me not just as an athlete, but in my ability to coach.”

Eliminate the doubt

After the morning track session and several post-practice meetings, Buford-Bailey finally returns to her office. In a rare moment, she sits down.

Just as Buford-Bailey showed her trust in Akinosun, that same trust was also extended to her when she was a budding young coach.

She was a fourth grade teacher and mother of two when her college and professional coach Gary Winckler gave her a pivotal phone call. He wanted her to come coach at Illinois, her alma mater. In 2004, she got her start as an assistant coach, and for the first few years, she was mentored by Winckler, who led the Fighting Illini women’s track programme to 11 Big Ten Championships during his 23 years with the team.

Buford-Bailey craved the opportunity to make an impact, and that opportunity started by asking an important question. Every year, she would approach him with a list of reasons why she was ready to be in charge of her own training group. After shadowing Winckler for two years, she finally received the news she’d been waiting for. At the 2006 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, California, she asked Winckler once more and he told her she was ready.

“Then he gave me my own group, and I was able to work with them from start to finish, plan training, and watch progression and really, really do something,” Bailey says. “How do you know if you’re doing things right or wrong if you don’t do fall training and figure it out? If you’re not in control of your event area, you’re never going to learn.”

The following year, Buford-Bailey coached two athletes to breakthrough Big Ten Championship titles. Two years later, she was named Illinois’ head coach after Winckler retired in 2008.

After being mentored by Winckler and developing her own coaching style through the years at Illinois and now at Texas, Buford-Bailey wants to get her athletes ready when it matters most.

“Find out where the doubt is and eliminate the doubt and everything else is going to fall into place. It’s not just about what’s happening on the track, it’s about connecting with the athlete and getting them to feel like a million bucks physically and mentally once they’re out on the track,” she said.

Spencer captures her coach best when she describes her motivation: “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we definitely run for her. She deserves that. She works so hard to make you the best athlete you can possibly be. She dares you to believe in yourself even when you don’t.”

Words: Taylor Dutch