BRANDON, Miss. — Before she became a three-time Olympic medalist and before she earned the title of world’s fastest woman, Frentorish Bowie welcomed a camera crew to her hometown, Sandhill, Miss.
“This is where I found my strength,” Bowie, who was nicknamed Tori, said of the small town 30 minutes northeast of Jackson.
It was 2016, and at age 26 Bowie was about to make her Olympic debut as part of the U.S. sprinting team at the Rio de Janeiro Games. But first she stopped at Pisgah High School to visit teachers and staff and found herself wiping away happy tears. She loved being home.
“One day I hope that I can come to Sandhill and there’s this huge sign that says, ‘Welcome to Sandhill, home of Tori Bowie,’” she said.
On Saturday, the community that took such pride in Bowie was struggling for answers as it gathered for her funeral and mourned her recent unexplained death. She was 32.
Her body was found on May 2 by Orange County, Fla., sheriff’s deputies, who were conducting a wellness check after she had not been seen or heard from in several days.
Bowie had been pregnant, but it was unclear whether she carried to term before she died. A program provided at the funeral service 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 her name confirmed a “baby Bowie,” but she declined to provide further details.
No cause of death has been released because toxicology tests are pending, and the office said this week that the tests could take up to three months to complete.
Bowie’s last years appeared to have been as much a mystery as her death. Fellow track athletes who once trained or competed with her said she had grown distant in recent years. Many didn’t know her off the track at all. She struggled with anxiety and paranoia, said her longtime agent, Kimberly N. Holland, adding that Bowie became more introverted.
At Saturday’s memorial service at True Vine Baptist Church in Brandon, Miss., a crowd of mourners tried to put aside their questions and focus on Bowie’s athletic achievements, her faith and her effervescent moments.
But a sense of shock still permeated the room as tributes were shared. Even the Rev. Sylvester London, who officiated the service and gave 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 track and field fame began in Sandhill almost by accident. She wanted to play basketball at Pisgah High School, but the school required interested students to compete in track, too, because it was too small to field separate teams for both sports. Bowie reluctantly agreed, even though she much preferred long basketball shorts to the shorter bottoms given to track athletes.
Without a track to call their own, the Pisgah Dragons practiced 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 she was recruited by the University of Southern Mississippi, she turned the tables. She would do track and field if she could try to walk on to the basketball team, she said. They came to an agreement.
“What stood out to me is that she was really tall and lanky,” said Sonya Varnell, a longtime athletic administrator at the University of Southern Mississippi. “Most sprinters got a lot of muscle on them, and she was tall and thin like a basketball player.”
Varnell was drawn to Bowie, whom she described as a hard worker who was humble and unassuming. Varnell was also raised by her grandmother, grew up in the same county as Bowie and had also been 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.”
Her greatest potential initially seemed to be in field events. Holland, who signed Bowie in January 2013, said in an interview that she knew she had signed “the next one.” Bowie was being groomed as a long jumper, but showed promise in the sprints, though Holland described Bowie’s initial form as looking like “she was running from a Rottweiler.”
When Al Joyner, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, met Bowie in 2013, he too saw the elite potential too. He compared her to his late wife, Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner and his sister, Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She could surpass their records, he told her.
“I told her she’s going to be the next great one,” Joyner said. “And that was in 2014. I’ll never forget the day she beat Allyson Felix. She told me, ‘Al, you were right.’”
Holland’s response toward Bowie’s influx of attention? “Welcome to the party.”
At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Bowie earned a silver medal in the 100 meters, a bronze in the 200 meters and a gold in the 4×100-meter relay on a team that included Felix.
In 2017, she won a world championship, earning the title of fastest woman in the world after a dramatic 100-meter race that she won by one-hundredth of a second by leaning her head forward across the finish line.
Ever the fierce competitor, after that finish, 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 close.”
Bowie’s dreams expanded. She wanted to get into modeling and was interested in working with fashion brands, and in 2018 she did both. She was featured in a Valentino campaign and a Stella McCartney-Adidas collaboration. She walked in New York Fashion Week. She was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue and was featured in the ESPN “Body Issue.”
She wanted to use her fame for good, her friend Antoine Preudhomme said. When she was a toddler, Bowie and her sister, Tamarra, who is 11 months older, were handed over to the foster care system by their birth mother, Bowie told reporters. Their paternal grandmother, Bobbie Louise Smith, gained legal guardianship and raised them.
Bowie wanted to show up for foster children, Preudhomme said. Together, the pair would visit foster homes across Florida and Mississippi three to four times a year to deliver Christmas gifts and occasionally challenge children to foot races.
Tanyeka Anderson, a program director at the Mississippi foster care provider Apelah, remembers a 2019 visit from Bowie. She said: “For a person of her magnitude to come help? To come give back to our children? That’s a very special thing.”
She said Bowie gave a party for the children that included dancing, and stayed for more than four hours. “She was very vibrant, very happy,” Anderson said.
But then something shifted. Bowie was always private, friends and former coaches said. In the past few years Bowie lost touch with many of the people who had been part of her athletic rise.
Varnell and Joyner found their texts and calls unanswered and unreturned. Varnell hoped she was busy. Joyner hoped she was training for the next big thing, perhaps a comeback after her 2019 appearance at the world championships, where she placed fourth in the long jump. Bowie’s Instagram page, which had been fairly active, was last updated in October 2019.
“She even backed away from me,” Holland said. “But she always found her way back because of the bond we had.”
She last raced in a 200-meter event at a sprint series held in Montverde, Fla., in July 2022. Bowie attended Full Sail University in Florida in the fall of 2022 until her death, her family obituary said.
A few weeks before Bowie died, she and Holland talked on the phone for the last time. “I can’t even put the words into how much joy came across the phone,” Holland said. “She giggled like an innocent child.”
“It was the old Tori again,” she added. Bowie told Holland that 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 visitation on Friday, many mourners heard Bowie’s voice again for the first time in years, smiling as they watched her races and interviews being played on a television above Bowie’s coffin.
Her infectious laugh reverberated around 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.”
The funeral procession on Saturday followed Bowie back toward Sandhill for her burial. The cemetery is not far from a sign that was installed in 2018. It reads: “Welcome to the Community of Sandhill, Home of Olympic Gold Medalist Tori Bowie.”