Tori Bowies hometown celebrates her life amid mystery surrounding her

Tori Bowie’s hometown celebrates her life amid mystery surrounding her death – The New York Times

BRANDON, Ms. – Before becoming a three-time Olympic medalist and before earning the title of the world’s fastest woman, Frentorish Bowie welcomed a camera crew to her hometown of Sandhill, Miss.

“This is where I found my strength,” Bowie, nicknamed Tori, said of the small town 30 minutes northeast of Jackson.

It was 2016 and at the age of 26 Bowie was about to make her Olympic debut as part of the USA Sprint Team at the Rio de Janeiro Games. But first, she attended Pisgah High School to visit faculty and staff, wiping away tears of joy as she did. She loved being at home.

“I hope one day I can come down to Sandhill and have this huge sign that says ‘Welcome to Sandhill, the home of Tori Bowie,'” she said.

On Saturday, the community so proud of Bowie struggled for answers as they gathered for her funeral, mourning her recent, unexplained death. she was 32

Her body was found May 2 by Orange County, Fla., sheriff’s deputies conducting a health exam after she was not seen or heard from for several days.

Bowie had been pregnant, but it was unclear if she would be able to carry it to death. A program made available at Saturday’s funeral service said that Bowie’s daughter Ariana “preceded Bowie in death.” An Orange County Coroner, who declined to provide her name Saturday, confirmed it was “Baby Bowie” but declined to provide further details.

No cause of death was announced as toxicology tests are pending, and the bureau said this week testing could take up to three months.

Bowie’s final years seemed as much of a mystery as her death. Fellow track and field athletes who once trained or competed with her said she had distanced herself from her in recent years. A lot of them didn’t know them at all off the track. She struggles with anxiety and paranoia, said her longtime agent Kimberly N. Holland, adding that Bowie has become more of an introvert.

At Saturday’s memorial service at True Vine Baptist Church in Brandon, Mississippi, a crowd of mourners tried to put their questions aside and focus on Bowie’s athletic accomplishments, her faith and her moments of rejoicing.

Still, there was a sense of shock in the room as the honors were shared. Even the Rev. Sylvester London, who conducted the service and delivered the eulogy, described his disbelief upon learning of Bowie’s death through a news story. “I was shocked, shocked,” London said. “Then I began to pray.”

Bowie’s path to athletics fame began almost by accident in Sandhill. She wanted to play basketball at Pisgah High School, but the school also required interested students to compete in track and field because the school was too small to field separate teams for each sport. Bowie reluctantly agreed, although she preferred long basketball shorts to the shorter pants worn by track and field athletes.

Since the Pisgah Dragons didn’t have their own track, they practiced by running around a meadow. They went on to win three state titles, with Bowie competing in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 meter relay and long jump.

However, Bowie’s first love was basketball. When she was recruited by the University of Southern Mississippi, she turned the tables. She would pursue athletics if she could try to get promoted to the basketball team, she said. They came to 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 skinny like a basketball player.”

Varnell was attracted to Bowie, whom she described as a hard worker who was unassuming and humble. 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 out of nowhere,” Varnell said, “just like me.” She added, “I don’t think she realized how good she was or how good she could be.”

Her greatest potential initially seemed to lie in field events. Holland, who signed Bowie in January 2013, said in an interview she knew she had signed “the next one”. Bowie was trained as a long jumper but showed promise in the sprints, although Holland described Bowie’s initial form as looking like she had “run away from a Rottweiler”.

When Al Joyner, 1984 Olympic triple jump champion, met Bowie in 2013, he too saw elite potential. He compared her to his late wife, Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner, and his sister, Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She could beat her 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 said to me, ‘Al, you were right.’”

Holland’s reaction to Bowie’s attention? “Welcome to the party.”

At the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Bowie won a silver medal in the 100 meters, a bronze medal in the 200 meters and a gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay with a team that included Felix.

In 2017, she won a world championship and secured the title of the world’s fastest woman after a dramatic 100-meter dash, which she won by a hundredth of a second by bending her head over the finish line.

After that finish, she turned to Holland, a fierce competitor, whom she affectionately calls “Ms. Kim” called. “I need a new coach,” said Bowie, recalling Holland despite the monumental win. “The race was too close.”

Bowie’s dreams expanded. She wanted to start modeling and was interested in working with fashion brands, and in 2018 she was doing both. It was featured in a Valentino campaign and a collaboration between Stella McCartney and Adidas. She walked at New York Fashion Week. She was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue and featured on ESPN’s Body Issue.

She wanted to use her fame for good, said her friend Antoine Preudhomme. When she was an infant, Bowie and her sister Tamarra, who was 11 months older, were placed in the foster care system by their birth mother, Bowie told reporters. Her paternal grandmother, Bobbie Louise Smith, obtained legal guardianship and raised her.

Bowie wanted to show up for foster children, Preudhomme said. Together, the two would visit foster homes across Florida and Mississippi three to four times a year to deliver Christmas presents and occasionally challenge children to races.

Tanyeka Anderson, director of programs at care provider Apelah in Mississippi, recalls a visit from Bowie in 2019. She said, “For a person her size to come to the rescue? To give something back to our children? This is something very special.”

She said Bowie threw a party for the kids, which included dancing, and stayed for more than four hours. “She was very lively, very happy,” Anderson said.

But then something changed. Bowie has always been private, friends and former coaches have said. In recent years, Bowie has lost contact with many of the people who had accompanied her rise in the sport.

Varnell and Joyner found their texts and calls went unanswered and unanswered. Varnell hoped she was busy. Joyner hoped she was training for the next big thing, maybe a comeback after her performance at the 2019 World Championships, where she placed fourth in the long jump. Bowie’s Instagram page, which has been quite active, was last updated in October 2019.

“She even resigned before me,” Holland said. “But she always found her way back because of the bond we had.”

Most recently, she competed in a 200-meter sprint series in July 2022 in Montverde, Florida. Bowie attended Full Sail University in Florida in the fall of 2022 until her death, according to her family obituary.

A few weeks before Bowie died, she and Holland spoke on the phone for the last time. “I can’t put into words how much fun there was on the phone,” Holland said. “She giggled like an innocent child.”

“It was 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 for the first time in years and smiled as they watched her races and interviews on a TV above Bowie’s coffin.

Her infectious laughter echoed around the room while several 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 back to Sandhill for her funeral. The cemetery is not far from a sign posted in 2018. It reads, “Welcome to the community of Sandhill, home of Olympic gold medalist Tori Bowie.”