In modern sports, where athletes specialize at a young age, the idea of a “natural”—an unheralded athlete who bursts onto the scene and succeeds because of her shocking physical gifts—is all but unheard of.
Tori Bowie is the rare exception.
She is from what might literally be described as the middle of nowhere.
At age 23, after watching the 2012 Olympics, she decided that she wanted to try sprinting professionally because she thought she could be an Olympian.
Four years later, Tori was the most decorated American track and field athlete at the 2016 Olympic Games.
A COUNTRY GIRL
The world’s would-be fastest woman hails from Sand Hill, Mississippi, a small, country town without a single stoplight. It seems an unlikely place to find a future Olympic champion—unless, of course, one were scripting a fairy tale.
At the age of two, Tori and her sister, Tamarra, were left in foster care by their biological mother. They would have remained there without being rescued by their grandmother, Bobbie Smith, who decided to raise them on her own.
As Smith told the Clarion-Ledger in 2016, “I did what I needed to do…but I also did what I wanted to do. And my wish for Tori and Tamarra was to be happy. To grow up with a roof over their head. To get an education and a good job. We always want better for our children…Only thing I can figure is it was meant for me to be here for them. It turned out like it was supposed to.”
As a child, Tori showed signs of her athleticism, peaking when she was at Pisgah High School. Tori told the Sun Herald that she was “always racing, jumping over tires, playing basketball…You always wanted to see who could jump the furthest over the ditch.”
Jumping would become her forte. At the University of Southern Mississippi—the same school where NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre would first make his name—Tori was the 2011 NCAA indoor and outdoor champion in the long jump.
When she began her professional track and field career, the assumption was that she would make her mark as a long jumper, too.
Everything changed for Tori in 2012.
A broken jaw kept her from long jumping in the U.S. Olympic Trials. So while her peers competed in the London Olympics, she watched the Games from home in Sand Hill with her grandmother.
It was during the 200m final, Tori told Sports Illustrated, that something in her mind clicked. What she saw, she explained to her grandmother, was the future.
“I really think I can beat those women running,” she said to Smith. “I really think I can beat those ladies.”
In 2013, Tori entered herself in a 100m race and ran a 11.14. After watching footage of the race, her agent, Kimberly Holland, had the same vision that Tori did.
“It was some raggedy sprinting,” Holland said, “but she was fast.”
Not long after, Holland paired Tori up with a sprint coach. As optimistic as Tori might have been about her own abilities, the results that followed were astonishing.
By 2015, Tori was making all of the same ladies she had run in London take notice. At U.S. Track and Field Championships, Tori won the 100m title in a time of 10.80 seconds, defeating the 2011 world champion, Carmelita Jeter, and her contemporary, English Gardner. That same season, Tori took the bronze medal in the 100m at the World Championships in Beijing.
While Tori was excited by her success, she had her eyes set on something greater: the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I was thankful, but not content,” she told the Sun Herald.
By the time 2016 arrived, Tori had her hopes set on making the U.S. Olympic Team in both the 100 and 200 meters.
She would not be denied.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Tori took third in the 100m and first in the 200m, her first American title in the latter race. The stage was set for Rio.
Tori’s grandmother was unable to make the trip to Brazil, but she harbored high hopes for her granddaughter at her first Olympics.
“My wish for her was to come home with something,” said Smith. “Some kind of medal.”
Her wish would be granted.
Tori took silver in the 100m, and four days later, bronze in the 200m.
“It’s an amazing feeling. ” she told USA Today after the 200 meters. “I’m coming from a small town, and leaving with two medals.”
But Tori wasn’t done. In the 4x100m relay, as the anchor leg of the United States’ team, she brought home the gold medal, finishing the race in 41.01—the second-fastest time in history.
“I felt like my teammates trusted me enough to handle that position,” she said afterward. “I for sure didn’t want to let anyone down.”
With her third medal, Tori had more than any American track and field athlete who competed in Brazil. She also became only the fifth U.S. woman to medal in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in the same Olympic Games.
Looking back, Tori said, there was nothing like the thrill of winning gold.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she explained to People. “I’m extremely content with my silver and bronze medals. But once I won the gold, I fell in love.”
Tori remains the same humble woman from Sand Hill, but some things have changed.
The drive entering Pisgah High reads Tori Bowie Lane. Southern Miss and Hattiesburg officially named November 25—her birthday—Tori Bowie Day. The track at Southern Miss now has two signs dedicated to her.
As she told the Hattiesburg American, “It’s special…humbling, I should say. I’ve never even thought about anything like this.”
The 2020 Olympics take place in Tokyo, Japan. Between now and then, Tori has one goal: Becoming the fastest woman in the world.
One of her longtime confidants, former college track coach Charlie Floyd, thinks she will be.
“She’s only been concentrating on sprinting since 2014,” he said to the Clarion Ledger. “She’s a baby compared to all the people she was running against [in Rio]. Tori is still working on coming out of the blocks properly, and she’s already beating the best in the world.”
“You mark it down…If she does what she’s supposed to over the next four years, she’ll win three golds in Tokyo. And it won’t even be close.”