EUGENE, Ore. — Four years ago during the London Olympics, Tori Bowie, a then-21-year-old, two-time NCAA long jump champion without a professional track and field contract and with a broken jaw that kept her out of the U.S. Olympic trials, was at home in Sand Hill, Miss., a small rural town 25 miles northeast of Jackson. She had not been watching much of the Olympics on television, but on the night of Aug. 8, she sat at home with her grandmother, uncle and sister and watched because Brittney Reese was competing and Reese is a long jumper from Mississippi and Bowie knows her. So she watched as Reese won the gold medal.
The 200 meters was also contested that night, when Allyson Felix of the U.S. finally won a gold medal after twice finishing second to Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica. Second behind Felix was Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, the two-time gold medalist in the 100 meters. They are some of the fastest women in history. Bowie was unimpressed. “I watched that 200 meters,” says Bowie, “and then I said to my grandmother, ‘I think I can beat those women [at] running. I really think I can beat those ladies.’”
It’s a fundamental truth of U.S. Track and Field that another great sprinter always comes along. This is not to say that there is a system that produces these great sprinters, refilling the void left by the aged and the injured, because there really is no system. There is a nation of 325 million people, diverse and sprawling, and it is true that many talented, young athletes, indeed, choose to play basketball or football or soccer, but there are always a few that drift in the direction of the track and simply stay there, eventually finding the best coaches and running fast in red, white and blue.
After Bob Hayes there were John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Jim Hines. After that, eventually, there was Carl Lewis and after that Maurice Greene and then Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay and perhaps Trayvon Bromell. After Wilma Rudolph there was Wyomia Tyus and then Evelyn Ashford and then Flo-Jo, Gail Devers, Marion Jones and Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix (You might not like all the names on this list, for obvious reasons. But they were all sprinters, and they did come along).
In 2014, a year-and-and-a-half after indifferently watching the Olympics, Bowie came along. She dropped her wind-legal, 100-meter personal best by more than three-tenths of a second to a world class 10.80 seconds and beat the best runners in the world in major meets. Last year, she won her first national championship and then took the bronze medal at the world championships in Beijing, behind the remarkable Fraser-Pryce and rising star Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands. She isn’t quite beating those women running yet, as promised. But she’s getting close.
Sunday evening at Hayward Field, Bowie, now 25, will be one of the favorites to win the 100 meters and certainly a prohibitive favorite to make her first Olympic team. (She will also run the 200 meters, and is expected to make the team in that event, as well). Sunday night’s 100 meters will push U.S.’s newest female sprint rivalry stage: Bowie and English Gardner, a former Oregon runner by way of New Jersey. Their different backgrounds reflect the broad tapestry of the sport. Gardner from the bustling, industrial northeast: “You can say I’m from the ‘hood,’” she said on Saturday.
And Bowie, well, from, not the “hood.” Asked to describe her hometown, Bowie leaned back, smiling, and said, “Wellllllllllll….. It’s nothing fancy.” Sand Hill is a small, unincorporated township, part of the Pisgah School District with several other small communities. After spending time in foster care as an infant, Bowie, whose last name is her mother’s (“Unfortunately,” says Bowie) was raised mostly by her grandmother, Bobbie Smith, who is now 69 years old. Bowie’s father, Dennis Smith, was “in and out” of her life, but currently, “We’re at the point where we actually have a relationship,” she says.
Bowie says her family lived, at least 20 strong with cousins, aunts and uncles, in a group of four houses set in rural countryside. “My family is so weird,” she says, laughing. “We had four kids enter college the same year I went.” She describes their life in childhood and adolescence: “I went where the boys in the family went,” she says. “We would shoot basketball, we would shoot guns, we’d play cards, we’d go fishing at the pond.” Bowie says she first drove a car—on the highway—at age 12 and owned three cars—the first an old Buick—before she had a driver’s license. “I enjoy where I’m from. That’s me. And my family never let me get far away.’’
Bowie, who has grown to a 5’9”, 121-pound athlete, played basketball and ran track in high school and was recruited to long jump at Southern Mississippi, just 100 miles away. After the second of her two NCAA titles, she qualified for the Olympic Trials in the long jump, but suffered that broken jaw while celebrating her performance at a club back in Mississippi. “Innocent bystander as she was celebrating making the qualifying standard,” says Bowie’s manager, Kimberly Holland. “A fight broke out as she was leaving and she got hit [in the jaw] with a bottle.”
The injury ended Bowie’s season. Late in 2012, she received an invitation from the United States Olympic Committee to train—in the long jump—at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. She accepted. But couldn’t shake that feeling that she could outrun the best. She says coaches at the training center discouraged her from sprinting, but she tried nonetheless. (Bowie had actually run 12 100s at Southern Mississippi, none faster than 11.30 seconds, which is not a world-class time). At the Mount Sac Relays in April of 2013, Bowie suddenly laid down an 11.14, a distant second behind Gardner’s 11-flat, but a PR by .16 seconds. Holland, who had been financially supporting Bowie since college while trying to get her sponsored by a shoe-and-apparel company, watched the video of the race while lying in bed that night. “It made me sit up,” says Holland. “It was some raggedy sprinting, but she was fast.”
Bowie ran seven more 100s in 2013, without success. Raggedy running is inconsistent, by definition. Her long jumping stagnated, as she finished fourth at the U.S. Championships. In the winter of 2014, however, she continued to dabble and delivered another outlier performance when she ran 7.14 seconds for second place at the indoor Millrose Games in January. Off that performance, Holland secured a sponsorship deal with adidas (“With some very aggressive incentives,” says Holland, to capitalize on improvement), and convinced Bowie to move to Clermont, Fla., to train with coach Lance Brauman, who had previously coached both Tyson Gay and Campbell-Brown.
What followed was Bowie’s breakthrough 2014, and that first national and world championship medal a year ago. (It was Gardner who was the fastest American at 10.79), but Bowie who won the biggest race of the year. This season her 21.99 at the Prefontaine Classic in late May is the best time by an American this year. There are plans to eventually resume long jumping and selectively add the 400 meters to her schedule.
And while Bowie is country to her marrow, she also has an edge. When lobbed the standard softball question about embracing the budding rivalry with Gardner, she said, “I don’t think we’re rivals. I’m just out there competing like I don’t have any other competition.” (The context wasn’t disrespectful, but was a clear refusal to embrace a cheap narrative. And good on her for that).
This much is certain: Bowie is part of the next generation. Jeter is not here, surely soon to retire. Sanya Richards-Ross retired Saturday. Felix—who is actually only five years older than Bowie, but has been on the world stage for 13 years—is fighting to make the team in two events after a bad ankle injury interrupted her training. Change is in the air. Time now to beat those women running.