In the aftermath of the sprinter’s death at the age of just 32, her USA teammate remembers a talented athlete who did things her own way
The post-race glory photo-op is a time honored tradition, an occasion for athletes to get their hit of global adulation in case their compatriot fans forget to tune in to the medal ceremony. Tori Bowie never looked more resplendent than she was in a snapshot of USA’s 4x100m women’s team after their remarkable triumph at the 2016 Olympics.
Interlocked with Allyson Felix, English Gardner and Tianna Bartoletta in a postcard for #blackgirlmagic, Bowie served a little bit of everything on that hot and sticky evening at João Havelange Stadium on the penultimate night of the Games. She flexed serious power with those washboard abs and flashed pops of color with her fuchsia headband – a silken cousin to the bonnets many Black women use to preserve their locks. But instead of wearing it to bed, Bowie wore hers on the world’s biggest stage. Gardner says that was typical of Bowie: “never what the world asked for, always unapologetically her”.
In a sport where women of African descent dominate, Bowie, wrapped in the stars and stripes at her first-ever Olympics, literally planted a flag for Black women with darker complexions, showing how supremely comfortable they could be in their skin and confident in defining their own aesthetics. Girls in Ghana could see themselves in her. So too could teens from her native Mississippi. You could see why the style arbiters at Valentino tapped the former high school hoops star for a spokesmodel. Who’d look more convincing in a silk track suit cradling a basketball, set against Manhattan’s night lights?
That’s what makes the news of Bowie’s death, which was announced on Wednesday, so utterly gut-wrenching. Here was a 32-year-old woman who had already done so much: won state titles shortly after joining track in her teens, broke national collegiate records as an NCAA title-winning long jumper at Southern Miss. She made a living competing in a sport she loved at the highest level – not bad for a girl from Sand Hill, a bent stop-sign town smack in the middle of the poorest state in the union.
“She was 100% small-town Mississippi, and proud of it,” says her longtime coach, Lance Brauman, who helped Bowie move from long jump to sprinting. “She had no problem telling everyone in the world that’s where she’s from.”
Bowie was talented, a quick study – it’s no wonder she enjoyed success while still so young and green. “None of it took her by surprise,” Brauman says. “She thought she should be there.”
Bowie even had a knack for the dramatic entrance. To keep Bowie fresh for her individual events – the 100m and 200m – in Rio, USA Track and Field kept her spot warm on the relay team with Morolake Akinosun, a four-time college champion relay racer. Akinosun ran well in the first heat. In the second she saw the Americans’ hopes of defending their Olympic title imperiled when Felix, running the start leg, fumbled the handoff to Gardner. A video replay showed Felix had actually been bumped by Brazil’s Kauiza Venancio.
The Americans were disqualified, and then reinstated under appeal – and then forced to run a heat alone to secure a place in the final. Akinosun, who walked off the track after Felix lost the baton, called that heat “a glorified practice”. For everyone but her, as it turned out. Akinosun knew she was just a placeholder. “[Bowie] was top three in the US, and she did get the silver in the 100m and [bronze] in the 200m,” Akinosun said in a 2018 sitdown with RunBlogRun. “So she absolutely deserved to be on that anchor leg. It was disappointing, but I was still part of the relay team and got a gold medal as well.”
Because of their near-disqualification the US went from running the final in the middle of the track among the powerhouses to the inside-most lane, which also starts the farthest back. It wasn’t where any team wanted to be with the formidable Jamaicans – led by golden girls Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Elaine Thompson (currently the fastest woman alive) – aiming to take the title from the Americans.
But when the gun fired, Bartoletta got off to a brilliant start, and Felix had no issue taking the handoff – or passing the baton to Gardner. When Bowie’s turn came to bring it home, the handoff was sloppy again. “A lot of people don’t know she had never even taken a baton pass in her life,” says Gardner, the emotion thick in her voice as she remembers the race. You’d never know as much from the jump Bowie got on Fraser-Pryce on the final leg. Gardner completed the handoff then charged a fist skyward in celebration. She had complete faith in Bowie.
“I knew the type of runner she was,” Gardner says. “And you’re definitely not running down Tori Bowie when she’s getting the baton from English Gardner. That’s just an example of how amazing an athlete this woman was.”
Ultimately, the Americans finished two-tenths of a second off their own world record, Bowie screeching with joy as she crossed the finish line and sprinted into Bartoletta’s waiting arms. “After the race, I said: ‘If we were in the middle, man, I don’t know,’” says Gardner. “I think we woulda beat the record.”
Instead, history remembers the race as the one that made Felix the first US woman to lay claim to five track and field golds. But really the moment was all Bowie’s. On the track huddled with her teammates in prayer, the then 25-year-old appeared to have the world on a string, even as a shoe slipped off in the middle of her Cinderella story.
“We had to laugh,” Gardner says of the giggle they shared in that moment. “My spikes were stolen just before the race, and Allyson had to give me some shoes. And then here we are about to take a picture in front of the timing board, and Tori loses her shoe.”
To have her gone less than seven years later cuts deep.
If there’s scant consolation in the aftermath of her death, it’s that the golden final in Rio is one that will stand for all time. We can say we saw the very best of Bowie and offer up that photo of her and her teammates as proof.
“I wish you could feel how much respect I have for Tori Bowie,” Gardner says. “I wish you could feel how amazing of a competitor she was. She was pressure, absolute pressure on that track.”