May 15 2018
Kathrine Switzer delivered the 2018 commencement address at her alma mater, Syracuse University on May 13, 2018.
If you Google “Sand Hill, Mississippi,” the first thing you’ll see is a Wikipedia link for the town. Click on that, and in the first paragraph you’ll learn three facts, in this order: Sand Hill is an unincorporated community of Rankin County, it is located off Mississippi Highway 25 and it is the birthplace of Frentorish “Tori” Bowie.
In becoming a three-time medalist in her Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro, Bowie not only transformed into a national treasure, but she also put her tiny hometown on the map. The sleepy rural town, so small that it wasn’t even counted in the U.S. Census, now proudly claims one of the best sprinters of our time as its own.
Although Bowie’s trajectory to world-class athlete was fast and furious, the glory of Rio was a long, long way from her tumultuous childhood in Rankin County. When Bowie was 2 years old, her mother gave her and her sister, Tamara, who is 11 months older, over to the foster-care system. The rationale behind her mother’s actions is no clearer to Bowie today than it was when she was a toddler.
“I never asked her about it,” says Bowie, now 27, “but she was going through her own issues.” Bowie only remembers an abiding sense of unhappiness in those pre-foster-care days, and that “I never wanted my grandmother to leave my side.” When her grandma was awarded legal guardianship of the sisters nine months after they entered foster care, “life changed in a major way,” she explains. There was stability, security. And later, accountability.
A tomboy kid, Bowie loved playing outdoors with her squad of cousins. Growing up in a “really country” town that didn’t have a single stoplight, they had to get creative with finding ways to entertain themselves. “We were always trying to create some type of competition, whether it was racing between trees or stacking tires and hurdling over them,” Bowie says.
Her first organized sport was basketball, which she started playing in the seventh grade. She immediately fell in love with it, and, despite a requirement that players be at least in the ninth grade to play on the varsity team, she was moved up right away. Bowie’s high school was so small—there were only about 40 kids total—her basketball coach told the team they also needed to join the track and field team. “We didn’t have enough people to make up both a basketball team and a track team, so that’s how I got into track and field,” Bowie says.
But when she received the track team uniform, she threw a fit. “The coach made us wear these short shorts, and I was not at all comfortable with it,” says Bowie, who loved her long, baggy basketball shorts. “We had a little altercation about it, and she kicked me off the team for two weeks before I finally gave in.”
Bowie knew that walking away was never an option. “My grandmother’s number-one rule was that once you start something, you don’t quit,” she says. “From a young age, she never let me give up on anything.”
Her star rose quickly on the Pisgah High School track and field team, and she captured multiple state high school titles in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and as a member of the 4×100 relay. She also continued playing basketball, making the state team. Her athletic rise continued at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Bowie received an athletic scholarship to compete as a long jumper and sprinter. Her junior year, in 2011, was a breakthrough year, when she won her first college title in the long jump at the NCAA Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championship and was named conference female athlete of the year.
After graduating in 2012, Bowie began saving her money to buy the $500 one-way plane ticket to San Diego, home of the Olympic Training Center. Her goal was to go pro in 2013, and she needed a formal training environment. “I got there and had complete culture shock,” she recalls. “I had nothing and had left my entire family behind.”
In San Diego, she met Al Joyner, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump and an OTC coach, who helped her develop her confidence and self-belief. “He’s always told me I have what it takes,” she says. “He believed in me before I believed in myself.”
That same year, Bowie was a semifinalist in the 100 meters at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and just missed making the long jump team for the world championships.
“I was just as shocked as everyone else by my results in the beginning,” Bowie says. “But at the same time, I was hoping for those kinds of results considering I had made a lot of sacrifices to get there.”
After a strong start to the 2014 season, a disappointing long jump performance at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Poland dramatically altered Bowie’s course. “I went into that world championship ranked top in the world [in the long jump] and thought I was so prepared, but I didn’t even make the finals,” Bowie says. “I think I got last place and left the meet feeling so heartbroken. I called my manager/agent, who had been encouraging me for a year to focus on sprinting, and told her I needed to do something different. She said, ‘How about we find you a sprint coach?’”
The rest is Olympic history.
With her first-place finish in the 100 meters at the 2015 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, she earned a spot on Team USA for the world championship in Beijing, where she won bronze. She went on to place third in the 100 meters at the 2016 Olympic Trials to secure her spot for the Rio Games.
“Making the 2016 Olympic Team has meant the most to me,” says Bowie, who is now based at the Olympic Training Center in Clermont, Fla. “I remember sitting at home watching the 2012 Olympics on TV and feeling so hyped about the idea of one day being there. So to actually make the team and live it, it feels like my greatest accomplishment.”
In an Olympic trifecta, Bowie went on to win gold in the 4×100 relay, silver in the 100 meters and bronze in the 200 meters. Most recently, she took gold in the 100 meters at the 2017 IAAF World Championships this past August, out-leaning second place by 0.01 seconds and earning the title of “The Fastest Woman in the World.”
When she’s not preparing to dominate on the track—her next goal is to make the U.S. team for the 2018 IAAF Indoor Championships in March—Bowie is working on creating her foundation, Live It, which will offer support and mentorship to children in the foster-care system. “I want to reach out to these kids to let them know that someone is thinking about them,” Bowie says.
She’s also designing a line of hair scarves like the ones she wears in competitions, and dreams of one day collaborating with fashion designer Stella McCartney (both are affiliated with Adidas). Bowie also hopes to do some modeling and acting in the future. “I don’t get to show my other sides, my goofiness, and it would be fun,” she says. “I’m waiting for the right opportunity and the right moment.”
With Bowie, it’s not a matter of if she’ll realize all her goals; it’s when. For that tenacity, she credits her grandma, whom she lost in January 2017. Her passing shattered Bowie’s world.
“My grandmother has always been my biggest fan, and she was my whole life,” she says. “The only thing that kept me living after her death is my commitment to training. I took my pain out on the track.”
Bowie believes that her laser focus on her running goals is the best way to honor her late grandma’s sacrifices and continue to make her proud.
It’s a fitting and natural tribute by the little girl who became the pride of Sand Hill, Mississippi.
A few of Bowie’s favorite things:
Bowie considers good nutrition “the most important part of being a pro athlete.” Here are the two fueling rules she lives—and trains—by.
“I don’t count calories but am very picky about what I eat. Try to keep it simple, eat a balanced diet and stay away from junk food and fried foods.”
“Water is so important, and getting enough fluids is something I pay very close attention to. I’m a little over the top—my friends can vouch for it! I try to get in some type of electrolytes, too.”
Racing on the world stage can be a pressure-cooker environment. Here’s how Bowie overcomes self-defeating nerves.
It’s all about perspective, and drawing focus inward: “There have been competitions where I got on the line and psyched myself out before I even let myself compete. I was thinking about the other competitors and not giving myself a fair chance. I had to shift to thinking, ‘Just focus on yourself and doing what your coach has taught you to do.’ I also have a great team—my family, my manager/agent Kimberly Holland, my coach Lance Brauman—behind me, and every time I start to make something a big deal, they always remind me that I’ve already competed against these women, and even though it may be the Olympics, it’s just another competition.”