Elliott has her Wildcats one win away from their first ever-trip to the state quarterfinals. They play Sumner (19-5) Saturday at 8 p.m. at Renton High School.
RENTON — She sits sobbing in her father’s La-Z-Boy chair, screaming at her mother that, no, everything isn’t going to be all right!
Not now, not ever!
“I thought my life was over,” Sonya Elliott tells an audience during a speech last fall.
“I wanted my life to be over.”
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The 1991 collision with a train not only killed her fiancé and left her with physical scars still visible today, but seemingly shattered an inner spirit. Through family, friends and basketball, she found reasons to live — and love — again.
So, when Elliott expounds the power of positivity and perseverance, her West Seattle basketball players believe.
And that belief, in part, has the seventh-ranked Wildcats (21-4) one win away from their first-ever trip to the Class 3A state quarterfinals. They play Sumner (19-5) Saturday at 8 p.m. at Renton High School.
Elliott played at University High School of Spokane and Eastern Washington University. Her remarkable recovery from the accident that took Mark Overholt is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, a story she shares in a 2011 novel “Back on the Court”.
The sub-title reads “a young woman’s triumphant return to life, love & basketball” and what starts as tragedy ends in happiness.
When West Seattle needs an emotional lift, Elliott’s words carry weight.
“It’s amazing to think of what she came back from,” said 6-foot-6 junior Lydia Giomi, the Metro League MVP.
“When she says, ‘You can do anything you want, just believe in yourself,’ she believes it. She has first-hand experience.”
With shattered limbs, multiple internal injuries and a large skull laceration, doctors told Elliott she would never play basketball again. Resuming a promising modeling career seemed unlikely and her broken heart wouldn’t hear of another romance.
But Elliott wouldn’t give up on herself. With a metal rod in her right arm, she dribbled with her left and was playing pickup games again just 13 months after the accident.
And on an even more arduous journey, Elliott found love again. She married Jason Elliott, a former college friend, in 1994 and they have two children — daughter Charli, a senior on this year’s team, and son Cass, a freshman who played on the West Seattle JV.
“I’m kind of stubborn and ornery,” the 47-year-old Elliott said this week, sipping a latte in a West Seattle coffee shop. “The hardest part was the emotional part. Physically, I was used to pushing myself hard.”
And used to proving people wrong.
Against the odds
At barely 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, the then-Sonya Gaubinger didn’t let herself get pushed around on the basketball court at U-Hi and was among the Greater Spokane League’s top scorers in the early 1980s.
Even her supportive parents wondered if she had the size to play at the next level, but she earned a scholarship from Eastern Washington and helped the team qualify for the NCAA tournament as a junior in 1987.
“I played a lot like my daughter,” Elliott said, referring to Charli’s scrappy, do-a-little-of-everything style. “I loved defense.”
Charli not only shares her mother’s passion for basketball, but enjoys writing as well and each is working on a young-adult novel.
“She is a huge role model in my life and every day I want to grow up to be like her,” Charli said.
Sonya began modeling in college and moved to Seattle after graduation to connect with an agency. She kept in shape with basketball — something she later said helped her recovery — and met Overholt on a court in Shoreline in February of 1991.
Overholt graduated from Cascade of Everett and pursued a baseball career at Edmonds Community College before playing at Washington in 1987 and ultimately the University of Puget Sound. Elliott was modeling and coaching girls basketball at Bishop Blanchet High School as an assistant under Terry Wilkinson.
By fall, she and Overholt were engaged and went to Spokane for a bridal shower the October weekend of the accident. During their return, they detoured off the freeway on a country road near Ritzville.
As Mark drove up a slight hill, sagebrush high on either side, Sonya reached into the backseat to prevent the engagement cards from flying around — about the last thing she recalls before a train traveling nearly 65 mph plowed into the driver’s side of the Chevy Lumina, killing Mark on impact and throwing her out the rear window.
“I remember everything up to the accident and I then remember a couple of things from ICU,” Elliott said, calling the rest lost days.
Turning to writing
As she woke, the heavy medications wearing off, Elliott said she immediately knew Overholt had not survived. She wished she hadn’t either.
After a week in ICU, and another week in a regular hospital room, she moved to a hospital bed in her parents’ dining room in Spokane.
“That was a tough time for her, because of her loss,” her mother, Carole Gaubinger said.
“She was in a lot of pain not only physically, but emotionally.”
The emotional recovery was slow and one day Carole bought her a journal. Writing proved therapeutic. Her anger poured out, word by word, and in April she moved back to Seattle.
Wilkinson and his wife had kept in touch — the 1991-92 Blanchet team dedicated its season to Elliott — and he was surprised when he first saw her again.
“She was a skeleton,” he said.
But a determined one. Sonya welcomed the physical rigors and found an emotional companion in Jason Elliott, although the rollercoaster of guilt and pleasure took time to level out.
‘It’s what you do when you lose’
Sonya had returned to coaching at Blanchet and was on Wilkinson’s staff when the Braves won the 3A state titles in 1995 and ’96. She stepped away when Charli was born in 1997. But when nearby West Seattle sought a head coach in 2000-01, Elliott got the job and hired Ashley Ioane as her assistant.
The Wildcats were perennial bottom-feeders in the tough Metro League and it was a building process. They won three games her first season and five the next, when Charli arrived as a freshman.
Then came double-digit wins in 2012-13 and 2013-14 (but double-digit losses as well), followed by this breakout year.
Elliott teaches her players more than the Xs and Os of the game.
“When you’ve been through things like I’ve been through, and a lot of people go through tough things in their life…what you learn is that basketball is not important as the things you take away from it.
“The wins and losses — it’s fun to win, and that’s your goal, to try to win. But it’s what you do when you lose, it’s what you do when you’re dealing with injuries and other aspects of it.”