By Kandi Carper ’05
Sonya Elliott’s return to life, love and the court.
It was a crisp Sunday afternoon, Oct. 21, 1991. Everything was planned for Sonya Gaubinger and Mark Overholdt’s Nov. 8 wedding. As the couple returned to Seattle from their final wedding shower in Spokane, things changed in an instant – shattered china, shattered crystal, shattered bodies, shattered lives.
A Burlington Northern train hit the couple’s red Chevy Lumina near Ritzville. Mark died on impact. Sonya was ejected through the car’s back window.
Sonya was in critical condition with a shattered right arm, broken leg, bruised heart, lacerated kidney, cracked ribs, internal bleeding and a concussion. She was airlifted from the hospital in Ritzville to Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, where she would undergo a six-hour surgery. After two weeks in the hospital, the first in intensive care, Sonya returned to her parents’ home to recuperate.
At age 25, Sonya had her life planned. She and Mark had an apartment in Seattle. She had a budding career as a fashion model, played basketball in leagues around the area and did some coaching. Suddenly she found herself physically and emotionally broken – helpless as an infant, home in Spokane with her mom and dad for the next six months.
“It was a tough time,” said Sonya. “As hard as the physical part was, the hardest part was losing Mark. He was the biggest thing in my life. After the accident, I couldn’t work or do anything, which, in hindsight, was a good thing. All I did was sit and cry. It allowed me to grieve intensively. If I would have gone back to work and had to act like everything was OK then it would have been even more difficult to get to a point in my life when I could go on.”
Slowly, with intensive physical therapy, her body began to heal. Her broken heart would take much longer. Sonya wasn’t sure she would ever be able to love again.
Sonya’s story of overcoming tragedy is something she’s happy to share with others who may be struggling. In October, she was one of the presenters at TEDxSpokane.
TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas, in the form of short, powerful talks. It began in 1984, as a conference, where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and it covers topics – from science, business, health, global issues –in more than 100 languages. Independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
During her talk, Sonya said that even when the most difficult, seemingly impossible things happen in your life, you can survive, and thrive, if you believe in yourself; if you can find something you’re passionate about.
“When I got the call to be a part of the TEDx Conference, I had to remind myself to believe, because public speaking scares me,” said Sonya. “But, if it helps one person than it’s worth it. I had to remind myself that I am capable of anything that I put my mind to. Well, maybe it’s too late for me to play professional basketball, but most anything.”
After the accident, Sonya wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to play again, but basketball is her passion. At age 48, she still plays on women’s leagues in Seattle. She’s currently the head coach for the West Seattle High School’s girls basketball team and was named the 2013 Metro League coach of the year.
In the early 1980s, Sonya played basketball at University High School in Spokane Valley at a time when girls’ sports were just taking off. “I was at the forefront of all that. I remember telling my friends ‘I’m going to get a scholarship to play basketball in college.’ My parents didn’t say this to me, but I found out later that they thought I was too small and couldn’t play at the college level. But they didn’t tell me that, so I thought I could do it.”
Sonya went to Eastern on a basketball scholarship, graduating in 1988 with a BA in communication studies. She played 111 games on the team that won the Big Sky Conference Championship her junior year in 1987, and was twice named academic all-conference.
“Every twist and turn in life makes you who you are, and my four years at Eastern were no different,” said Sonya. “My time on the court, in the classroom and living college life is something I would never change. I loved the intensity of playing D-1 basketball. I had some great professors, and I have my degree. I’m still connected with a lot of EWU grads, and of course, had I not gone to Eastern, I would have never met Jason.”
Sonya and Jason Elliott (’90 BA communication studies) met at EWU, where he played football. Being student-athletes, they often crossed paths.
After the accident, Sonya was at a baseball game when she saw a young man who looked just like Jason. For some reason, she couldn’t get Jason off her mind. Remembering that he worked in Seattle for SmithKline Beecham, she got the corporation’s customer service number off a tube of toothpaste and somehow managed to maneuver a chain of phone transfers until she finally reached his voice mail. They reconnected and as they say, “the rest is history.” Sonya and Jason married in 1994. They have a daughter, Charli, 17, and a son, Cass, 14.
Another part of Sonya’s life is her modeling career – something that also resulted from her time at Eastern. As part of a class assignment, she interviewed someone at a modeling agency in Spokane. Next thing you know, she was getting modeling assignments.
After graduation, Sonya moved to Seattle to pursue a modeling career that would take her on assignments around the world. After the accident, she slowly began working again. In fact, a TV commercial she did for Easy Spirit shoes – one where she’s playing basketball in a pair of high-heeled pumps – helped pay for the 4-inch-thick folder of medical bills that accumulated following the accident.
Sonya is also an author. Wanting to share her story with others, she wrote her memoir, Back on the Court: A Young Woman’s Triumphant Return to Life, Love & Basketball, published in 2012.
She first began writing when she was recuperating from the accident. Her mom suggested that she keep a journal. “It gave me a place to vent my anger because nobody else knew what I was going through,” said Sonya. “It helped me survive.”
Sonya is currently writing a young adult novel and a non-fiction book on coaching basketball. Her approach to writing is much like her approach to the game – practice, get good coaching and stick with it.
“I started taking writing classes, joined writing groups and went to conferences to help me learn how to write. I found out that I really love it. It’s how to express what I’m feeling. If I write about things I’m passionate about, like basketball, it’s easier.”
Sonya and Jason, who is vice president of technical sales for JPMorgan Chase, are busy with their two teenagers, their two boxers, their work and activities, but when life slows down, they find time for quiet walks on Alki Beach near their home.
Sonya has a blog where she shares her progress on her writing projects and her musings about life in general – a life that may have some cracks, but is no longer shattered.