Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 print edition of The Times-Sentinel. To see stories like this first, please subscribe. Call 316-540-0500 to start home delivery of The Times-Sentinel, the Haysville Sun-Times or the Conway Springs Star.
By Sam Jack
One of Cheney High School’s all-time track and field stars, Tonya (Jopp) Gaona, has been added to the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) Hall of Fame.
As a high school track athlete from 1988 to 1991, Gaona earned 11 State medals, including nine golds. She set the Class 3A State record in the 400 meters as a junior, and won four State golds that year.
Going into the State meet her senior year, she had won 96 consecutive races, according to the KSHSAA Hall of Fame citation. She led the Cardinals track and field team to two State titles and a runner-up finish, and also contributed to a 3A State basketball title her senior year.
“I never expected it, but I definitely appreciate it,” Gaona said of the hall-of-fame honor. “A lot of people helped me get to where I needed to be, so I’m grateful, for sure.”
Gaona’s high school athletic successes were impactful, she said, but she did not let them dictate her identity.
“I didn’t let it define who I was; I didn’t let it go to my head,” Gaona said. “That said, I think those times that I had through sports are the best memories of high school that I have. The people that I competed with are some of my very closest friends today.”
Cheney’s head track coach during Gaona’s high-school years was Vernon Ferguson, who filled that role from 1969 unt his death in 1996. Gaona has fond memories of Ferguson, and of Curtis Conrad, who was her main personal coach.
“(Conrad) was probably one of the most influential people in my life, at that time anyway. While he was hard on me, he knew me well enough to know how to push me and to motivate me,” Gaona said.
Countless others deserve a share of the credit, Gaona said, including family and friends.
“The one thing that was very important to me in the way that I was brought up was always to give the glory to God. Nothing that I have today would’ve been possible without my parents instilling in me the love, support and forgiveness that God has given me,” Gaona said.
After high school, Gaona continued her track career at Fort Hays State University, where she had further successes. She ran indoor and outdoor seasons, broke a couple records and went to nationals with her 4×400 relay team.
In college, she met her husband, Jeff Gaona, and the pair moved to Dallas after graduation. Being in a big city made Tonya appreciate her small-town background in a new way.
“We quickly saw how small you really are, and maybe, a little bit, how much we took for granted the relationships that we had while we were in Cheney and where we grew up,” she said.
Now the Gaonas and their daughter Ava, 12, have moved back to Wichita. Gaona works for Cigna Insurance and enjoys volunteering at the all-class State track and field championship, held at Wichita State University, each year.
A ceremony to formally induct Gaona into the KSHSAA Hall of Fame has not yet been scheduled.