Biggleswade Athletic Club paid tribute to their late, lamented coach and official Sonia Brown at their annual awards ceremony in Sandy, with the committee unanimously recognising her immense contribution and naming her as Club Person of the Year.
Sonia, who succumbed to cancer last July at the age of 53, was represented on the night at Garden Court by her son Scott and husband Roger, and Scott was met with an emotional standing ovation from all present as he collected the award on her behalf. Club chairman Damien Pitts also handed the family a book of condolence that club members have been contributing to over recent months.
Moving from Barbados in her teens, Sonia lived with her aunt in Essex and immediately showed promise in athletics. She was the only black child in her school, and one day the fastest boy unwisely challenged her to a race. Sonia won with ease, and was quickly identified as a promising young talent. She joined up with the successful Essex Ladies club, competing in sprints and the long jump, and was a contemporary of Olympic and world championship gold-medal winning 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell as well as other Team GB internationals including multi-event specialist Kim Hagger and 400m runner Gladys Taylor.
Essex Ladies latterly merged with Woodford Green, and the amalgamated club’s former president Jean Burgess said: “It was such sad news. As she competed in the 1980s she would have been part of the team which won the Southern Women’s League a total of 10 times in 13 years.
“I find it very gratifying that Sonia was inspired by her time in Essex Ladies to take up coaching and officiating with Biggleswade AC.”
And that she very much did. The second chapter of her athletics journey came upon arriving in Bedfordshire, where she attempted to find a venue to help her get on the coaching ladder. After an abortive flirtation with Bedford & County AC, she tried her luck with BAC, and immediately found herself besotted, and a passionate and highly committed advocate of young local talent.
Another club coaching and officiating stalwart, Ken Prior, said: “Rapidly qualifying as a level one coach, she started helping David Brown coach our sprinters. Around the same time, Cassie Prior – who had been coaching our under 11s – was leaving to start a family. Sonia took her place and named and developed the section into the Little Bees. It became so successful that, following the 2012 Olympics, for several months we had to run two sessions on Tuesdays to accommodate all the athletes.”
David said: “We both had the same vision for the younger element – athletics was for all, for fun, and to be enjoyed. People come along and develop at different speeds. Some develop at an early stage, while some don’t until much older, but Sonia always said they should all be treated with respect. She understood that youngsters were the heart of the club and if treated right would be the seniors of tomorrow to help take the club beyond the next phase.”
She would go on to become a committee member, helping to decide the club’s direction, as well as a qualified field official, and both Sonia and former treasurer Mark Stead were regularly to be found trackside and at other venues far and wide as a valuable photo-finish tag-team. With many clubs lacking the equipment and expertise to supply the service themselves, they would call on Sonia and Mark, and part of her legacy can be found in many clubs’ records, results lists and in individual athletes’ personal bests.
Fellow BAC coach Michael Blunt said: “Sonia was a great coach and a huge asset to the club. On a personal level she encouraged me to start coaching and having inherited one of her projects – the ‘Mini Bees’ – my aim has always been to develop a program that Sonia herself would have been proud of. The blend of enthusiasm, enjoyment and knowledge that was clear in all her sessions will be impossible to replicate but well worth aspiring to.”
She was also an inspiration to Bev Strong, who said: “I first met her eight years ago when my son Bradley joined the club in the sprint group. He competed in the Eastern Young Athletes’ League and as his events were quite spread out we were usually there for a long day, so I often helped Sonia, who was officiating the field events. As a complete novice as far as athletics were concerned, she gave me lots of information about the rules and regulations of the various events and after helping her for three or four years she encouraged me to take the field officials course. I then had to perform the various roles within each event and again Sonia was on hand to offer advice and oversee what I was doing.
“Without Sonia by my side I have often felt out of my depth as I could always rely on her to give me an encouraging nod from a distance if I looked towards her. Words cannot express the huge loss she will be to the club and I will carry on officiating in her memory.”
Martin Oestreicher was another roped in to help by Sonia: “I first met her when my girls Kira and Heidi joined Little Bees. After helping out informally for a while, Sonia encouraged me to go on the Assistant Coaches course, which led to me helping at the sessions for about 18 months. She was such a pleasure to work with, always full of enthusiasm and praise, always smiling, encouraging and obviously devoted to getting the best out of the sometimes reluctant Little Bees. She taught me a lot about perseverance and endurance – and how to manage a crowd of small children!”
Sarah Ridley is a recent addition to the BAC committee, and a former Little Bee who can attest that athletics under Sonia’s wing was not always about the coach cracking the whip: “Little Bees used to be indoors on a Monday night alongside adult circuit training. Sonia led this and each night would end with one big relay of everyone, kids and adults alike. One night she had to join in to make up the numbers and was due to pass the baton over to me. She came in so fast that she nearly took me with her and my seven-year-old legs couldn’t go that fast! We both very nearly ended up in a big heap on the floor but somehow managed to avoid it and win the relay!
“Years later at a EYAL meeting, our team of officials was looking after the long jump. Sonia was leading this team and I was competing. One of my jumps went horribly wrong, and I completely and spectacularly faceplanted in the sand pit. It was a completely legal jump, but didn’t get measured for about five minutes because Sonia was laughing so hard at me that she couldn’t see the tape for the tears in her eyes. She was always very supportive of her athletes, even while laughing at us!”
Even as her illness took hold, she remained stoic, dignified and passionate about BAC. As David said: “I remember calling Sonia every Monday morning until she became very ill to discuss the plan for coaching plans for the week to follow. We’d talk about who had performed well over the weekend, and ask were we getting our coaching right.
“Her husband Roger described me as Sonia’s ‘athletic husband’ – this was initially a surprise but I later realised it was a compliment to the commitment of both Sonia and myself.”
Upon her death, tributes from athletes, friends and colleagues poured in. Club chairman Damien Pitts said: “I will really miss her cheerful nature, as she could make me smile, even if I have had a bad day.” Julia Mackay, a BAC run leader, added: “I always admired her drive and energy – she was such an inspiration to all who knew her.”
Charlotte Sexton: “It was such a pleasure knowing such a wonderful woman – she was always making sure I had a way to get to training!”
Stuart Goodwin: “She made it absolutely clear to us when telling us she was ill – she didn’t wanted to be looked on with pity or as a victim. She was a cool, calm customer to the last who just wanted to live the time she had and spend as much of it drinking in the enthusiasm of the kids she trained.”
Dan Steel: “I will miss her smile and her positive mental attitude regardless of what came up both on and off the track.”
Scott Parsons: “One of the most enthusiastic and compassionate people I’ve had the pleasure to come across. Her enthusiasm was contagious.”
Peter Lawson: “She was a little ray of positivity that touched many hearts including mine.”
Alison Foster: “All three of my boys were coached by Sonia. She inspired so many. She was a lovely friend and so dedicated to athletics.”
Ricky Byrne: “My kids were devastated. She made a big impression on them both. Thank you for everything you did.”
Helen Middleton: “Every time I saw Sonia she was busy – handing out race numbers, helping with refreshments, coaching … But she always had a smile on her face and time for a chat.”
Louise Cant: “Thank you for giving us Little Bees, and for giving my son the best start at athletics. We will miss you dearly.”
A forensic planner to the last, she requested that the dress code for her funeral would prominently feature two colours that became synonymous with her identity – the blue and yellow shared by both the Barbadian flag and the Biggleswade Athletic Club vest. At her wake in August, held at Bedford International Stadium, where she had overseen her athletes and officiated so many times, armies of friends and colleagues numbering well into the hundreds gathered to pay their respects.
A new club award, the Sonia Brown Dedication Cup, was introduced in her honour, recognising exceptional commitment to the club and the sport by one of BAC’s Little Bees – Ava Rawlins recently became the first winner of many.
Ken concluded: “She was a visionary with the practical nous to make those visions happen. It was no coincidence that the most successful period in BAC’s history occurred when she was active. She always had new ideas and plans to make them happen.
“With no disrespect to anyone else in the club past or present, David and Sonia have been the two people who have shaped the club most within the last 25 years and I, like many others, will miss her enormously.”