Brandon, Miss. — Before she became a three-time Olympic medalist and before she was crowned world's fastest woman, French Bowie welcomed a camera crew to her hometown of Sandhill, Miss.
“This is where I find my strength,” said Bowie, who was usually called Tori from a small town 30 minutes northeast of Jackson.
The year is 2016, and at the age of 26 Bowie will make his Olympic debut as part of the US sprint team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. But first he stopped at Pisgah High School to visit teachers and staff and found himself wiping away happy tears. He is happy to be at home.
“One day I wish I could come to Sandhill and there was a big sign that said, ‘Welcome to Sandhill, home of Tori Bowie,'” she says.
On Saturday, the community that was so proud of Bowie was struggling for answers as it gathered for his funeral and mourned his recent unexplained death. He is 32 years old.
His body was found May 2 by Orange County, Florida, sheriff's deputies, who were carrying out a medical examination after he had not been seen or heard from for several days.
Bowie had been pregnant, but it was unclear whether she was pregnant before she died. A programme given at the funeral ceremony on Saturday said that Bowie was “preceded in death” by a daughter, Ariana Bowie. An official at the Orange County medical examiner's office on Saturday who declined to give his name confirmed it was “baby Bowie”, but declined to provide further details.
No cause of death was released because toxicology tests were delayed, and the office said this week that tests could take up to three months to complete.
Bowie's final years seem as mysterious as his death. Fellow track athletes who have trained or competed with him say he has drifted further apart in recent years. Many do not know him at all. Al Joyner, an Olympic track coach who has coached Bowie since he was in his early 20s, said he last spoke to him in the fall of 2019 at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.
At a memorial service Saturday at True Vine Baptist Church in Brandon, Miss., crowds of mourners tried to put their questions aside and focus on Bowie's athletic accomplishments, his beliefs, and moments of passion.
But a sense of shock still enveloped the room when the tributes were distributed. Even the Reverend Sylvester London, who officiated the service and gave the speech, described his disbelief when he learned of Bowie's death from a news report. “I was shocked, shocked,” said London. “Then I started to pray.”
Bowie's path to track and field fame started at Sandhill almost by accident. He wanted to play basketball at Pisgah High School, but the school required interested students to compete in track as well, as it was too small to form separate teams for the two sports. Bowie reluctantly agreed, even though he couldn't agree more preferably long basketball shorts to the shorter butt given to track athletes.
With no trace to call their own, the Pisgah Dragons train 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 meter relay, and long jump.
Still, Bowie's first love was basketball. When he was recruited by the University of Southern Mississippi, he turned things around. He would do athletics if he could try to make the basketball team a try, he says. They come to an agreement.
“What stood out to me was that he was very tall and skinny,” said Sonya Varnell, longtime athletic administrator at the University of Southern Mississippi. “Most sprinters have a lot of muscle, and he's tall and skinny like a basketball player.”
Varnell was attracted to Bowie, whom he described as a down-to-earth hard worker. Varnell was also raised by his grandmother, having grown up in the same area as Bowie and was also a first-generation student athlete. “He came from nothing,” said Varnell, “just like me.” He added, “I don't think he realized how good he was or how good he was.”
His greatest potential initially appeared at field events. When Joyner, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, met Bowie in 2013, he was being groomed as a long jumper. It wasn't long before he was telling Bowie that he too could be a sprinter on the world stage, he said.
“I told him he was going to be the next great,” said Joyner. “And that was in 2014. I will never forget that day she beat Allyson Felix. He told me, ‘Al, you're right.'”
At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he won silver in the 100 meters, bronze in the 200 meters and gold in the 4×100 meter relay on a team that included Felix.
In 2017, Bowie won the world championship, earning the title of the world's fastest woman after a dramatic 100 meter race she performed. won by hundredths of a second by leaning his head forward across the finish line.
His dream is expanding. She wanted to get into modeling and was interested in working with a fashion brand, and in 2018 she did both. He is shown in Valentino campaign fund Stella McCartney-Adidas collaboration. He walked in New York Fashion Week. She was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Mode and displayed on ESPN “Body Problems”.
He wanted to use his fame for good, said his friend Antoine Preudhomme. When he was a toddler, Bowie and his sister, Tamarra, who was 11 months his senior, were put into foster care by their biological mother, Bowie told reporters. Their paternal grandmother, Bobbie Louise Smith, obtained legal guardianship and raise them.
Bowie wants to play for foster kids, says Preudhomme. Together, the couple would visit orphanages in Florida and Mississippi three to four times a year to deliver Christmas gifts and occasionally challenge children to foot races.
Tanyeka Anderson, program director at care provider Mississippi Apelah, recalls a 2019 visit from Bowie. He said: “For someone as big as him to come help? To come give back to our children? That's a very special thing.”
She said Bowie threw a party for the children including dancing, and stayed for more than four hours. “He was so excited, so happy,” Anderson said.
But then something changed. Bowie has always been secretive, friends and former coaches say. But in recent years Bowie lost touch with many of the people who had been part of his athletic renaissance.
Varnell and Joyner found their texts and calls went unanswered and not returned. Varnell hoped he was busy. Joyner hopes he trains for the next big thing, perhaps a comeback following his 2019 world championships appearance, where he placed fourth in the long jump. Bowie's Instagram pagewhich is quite active, last updated in October 2019.
He last raced in the 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 his death, his family obituary said.
During the visitation on Friday, many mourners heard Bowie's voice again for the first time in years, smiling as they watched the race and his interview played on television above Bowie's casket.
His laugh, always infectious, echoed around the room as several shook their heads in disbelief.
“When I came back to Sandhill,” Bowie said in a 2016 video, “I felt free.”
Saturday's funeral procession followed Bowie back to Sandhill for his burial. The cemetery is not far from a sign that was put up in 2018. It read: “Welcome to the Sandhill Community, Home of Olympic Gold Medalist Tori Bowie.”