Brandon, Miss. – Before becoming a three-time Olympic medalist and before winning the title of fastest woman in the world, Frentorish Bowie hosted a film crew in her hometown of Sandhill, Miss.
“That’s where I found my strength,” Bowie, nicknamed Tori, said of the small town 30 minutes northeast of Jackson.
It was 2016 and at 26, Bowie was set to make his Olympic debut as part of the USA sprint team at the Rio de Janeiro Games. But first, she stopped by Pisgah High School to visit teachers and staff and found herself wiping away tears of joy. She liked being at home.
“One day I hope I can come to Sandhill and there’s this huge sign that says, ‘Welcome to Sandhill, Tori Bowie’s home,'” she said.
On Saturday, the community that was so proud of Bowie struggled for answers as they gathered for his funeral and mourned his recent unexplained death. She was 32 years old.
Her body was found on May 2 by sheriff’s deputies in Orange County, Florida, who were performing a health check after she had not been seen or heard from for several days.
Bowie was pregnant, but it was unclear whether she had carried to term before she died. A program broadcast at Saturday’s funeral said Bowie was “preceded in death” by a daughter, Ariana Bowie. An Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office official on Saturday who declined to be named confirmed a “Bowie baby,” but she declined to provide further details.
No cause of death has been released as toxicology testing is pending, and the office said this week testing could take up to three months.
Bowie’s final years seemed to have been as much of a mystery as his death. Other track athletes who once trained or competed with her said she had drifted away in recent years. Many did not know her off-piste at all. She struggled with anxiety and paranoia, her longtime agent Kimberly N. Holland said, adding that Bowie had become more introverted.
During Saturday’s memorial service at True Vine Baptist Church in Brandon, Mississippi, a crowd of mourners tried to put aside their questions and focus on Bowie’s athletic accomplishments, his faith and his moments. sparkling.
But a sense of shock still permeated the room as tributes were shared. Even the Reverend Sylvester London, who officiated the service and delivered the eulogy, described his disbelief when he learned of Bowie’s death from a news alert. “I was shocked, shocked,” London said. “Then I started to pray.”
Bowie’s path to athletics fame began at Sandhill almost by accident. She wanted to play basketball at Pisgah High School, but the school required interested students to also participate in the track and field competition, as it was too small to field separate teams for the two sports. Bowie reluctantly agreed, although she much preferred the long basketball shorts to the shorter bottoms given to track athletes.
Without a track of their own, the Pisgah Dragons trained by running around a grassy field. They went on to win three state championship titles, with Bowie competing in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 meters relay and long jump.
Still, Bowie’s first love was basketball. When she was recruited by the University of Southern Mississippi, she turned things around. She would do track and field if she could try to join the basketball team, she said. They reached an agreement.
“What struck me was that she was really tall and lanky,” said Sonya Varnell, a longtime athletic administrator at the University of Southern Mississippi. “Most sprinters had a lot of muscle, and she was tall and lean like a basketball player.”
Varnell was drawn to Bowie, whom she described as hardworking, humble and unassuming. Varnell was also raised by her grandmother, grew up in the same county as Bowie, and was also a first-generation student-athlete. “She came from nothing,” Varnell said, “just like me.” She added: “I don’t think she realized how good she was or how good she could be.”
His greatest potential initially seemed to be in the field trials. Holland, who signed Bowie in January 2013, said in an interview that she knew she had signed “the next one.” Bowie was prepared as a long jumper, but showed promise in the sprints, although Holland described Bowie’s initial form as looking like “she was running from a Rottweiler”.
When Al Joyner, 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, met Bowie in 2013, he too saw the potential of the elite. He compared her to his late wife, Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner and her sister, Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She could beat their records, he told her.
“I told her she was going to be the next big thing,” Joyner said. “And that was in 2014. I will never forget the day she beat Allyson Felix. She was like, ‘Al, you were right.
Holland’s response to Bowie’s influx of attention? “Welcome to the party.”
At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Bowie won a silver medal in the 100 meters, a bronze in the 200 meters, and a gold in the 4×100 meters relay on a team that included Felix.
In 2017, she won a world championship, claiming the title of fastest woman in the world after a spectacular 100-meter race which she won by a hundredth of a second by tilting her head forward at the finish line. .
Always a fierce competitor, after this arrival she approached Holland, whom she affectionately called Ms. Kim. “I need a new coach,” Bowie said, Holland recalled, despite the monumental win. “The race was too tight.”
Bowie’s dreams got bigger. She wanted to get into modeling and was interested in working with fashion brands, and in 2018 she did both. She has been featured in a Valentino campaign and a Stella McCartney-Adidas collaboration. She participated in New York Fashion Week. She was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue and was featured in ESPN’s “Body Issue.”
She wanted to use her fame for good, said her friend Antoine Preudhomme. When she was a toddler, Bowie and her sister, Tamarra, who is 11 months older, were placed in the foster care system by their birth mother, Bowie told reporters. Their paternal grandmother, Bobbie Louise Smith, obtained legal guardianship and raised them.
Bowie wanted to run for the foster children, Preudhomme said. Together, the couple visited foster homes across Florida and Mississippi three to four times a year to deliver Christmas presents and occasionally challenge children to foot races.
Tanyeka Anderson, program director at Mississippi foster care provider Apelah, recalled a visit from Bowie in 2019. She said, “For someone of her magnitude to come help? Come and give back to our children? It is something very special.
She said Bowie threw a party for the kids that included dancing and stayed for over four hours. “She was very buoyant, very happy,” Anderson said.
But then something changed. Bowie has always been private, friends and former coaches said. Over the past few years, Bowie has lost touch with many people who had been part of his athletic rise.
Varnell and Joyner found their texts and calls unanswered or returned. Varnell hoped she was busy. Joyner was hoping she was training for the next big thing, possibly a comeback after competing at the 2019 world championships, where she placed fourth in the long jump. Bowie’s Instagram page, which had been quite active, was last updated in October 2019.
“She even walked away from me,” Holland said. “But she always found her way back because of the bond we had.”
She last ran in a 200-meter event in a sprint series held in Montverde, Florida in July 2022. Bowie attended Full Sail University in Florida in the fall of 2022 until her dead, according to his family’s obituary.
A few weeks before Bowie’s death, she and Holland spoke on the phone for the last time. “I can’t even put the joy I felt on the phone into words,” Holland said. “She laughed like an innocent child.”
“It was the old Tori again,” she added. Bowie told Holland she was pregnant and agreed to come to Atlanta. Holland wanted to help raise the baby. “She was excited, she was so excited,” Holland said.
During Friday’s visit, many mourners heard Bowie’s voice again for the first time in years, smiling as they watched his runs and interviews broadcast on a television above Bowie’s casket.
His infectious laugh echoed through the room as some shook their heads in apparent disbelief.
“When I’m back in Sandhill,” Bowie said in a 2016 video, “I feel free.”
Saturday’s funeral procession followed Bowie to Sandhill for his burial. The cemetery is not far from a sign that was put up in 2018. It reads, “Welcome to the community of Sandhill, home of Olympic gold medalist Tori Bowie.”