Jun 26, 2014, 11:58 AM EDT
The public address runner introductions at the Prefontaine Classic 200m went in descending order, beginning from lane eight. For terrified Tori Bowie, in lane one, that only enhanced the audible sense of her much more accomplished competition.
Bowie, about to start the second 200m race of her pro career, looked out on the revered Hayward Field track during applause for the women who preceded her on May 31. To her right stood the World, Olympic and NCAA champions in the event.
“I really need to run well,” Bowie thought. “Or I’m going to get embarrassed. I never want to be last.”
Bowie, predominantly a long jumper until the last two months, hadn’t been told she was added to the Prefontaine 200m field until about 48 hours before the race.
She won it, in 22.18 seconds. Bowie slashed .39 of a second off her previous 200m race time and posted the fastest 200m of the year. The time would have won a silver medal at the 2013 World Championships.
“Did this really just happen?” she thought after. “This really just happened.”
Bowie, 23, also won 100m sprints in Rome and New York the next two weeks.
The Mississippian who finished 12th in the 100m and fourth in the long jump at last year’s U.S. Outdoor Championships is the sprint revelation of this non-Olympic, non-World Championships season. She is the best U.S. women’s sprinter of 2014, so far.
Bowie is entered in the 100m again at this week’s U.S. Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, Calif. The first round is Thursday night, and the semifinals and finals Friday.
Bowie is also on the start lists for the 200m and long jump but said earlier this week she only planned to compete in the 100m. Maybe next year she will contest all three events. Maybe in two years.
“I’m penciling her in as one of the first names to make the team in Rio,” NBC Olympics analyst Ato Boldon said. “She’s here to stay. She’s not just a 2014 story. This is a name that everybody else is going to have to remember.”
Bowie goes by a shortened version of her given name Frentorish (“I want you to have a name that no one else has,” her father said). She was left by her biological mother at a foster home with her sister at age 2. Her paternal grandmother took custody one year later in Sandhill, Miss., a community with a 24-word Wikipedia entry.
“The closest Walmart to us is probably 15 miles away,” said Julie Crockett, a secretary at Bowie’s high school and her godmother.
Bowie grew up with her best friend sister, Tamarra, who is 11 months younger, and about 30 extended family members. They played basketball, shot BB guns and picked blackberries.
The sisters were dragged to track and field by their high school basketball coach, who made it mandatory if nothing else for conditioning. They considered boycotting, Tamarra said, because of the short shorts. Their grandmother, their moral compass, wouldn’t let them.
“It wasn’t so bad,” said Tamarra, a triple jumper now trying to get into law school. “We started winning everything.”
“My first track experience wasn’t actually a track experience,” Bowie, a sophomore then, said. “It was kind of like my basketball coach taking me out to this grassy area and making us run in a circle.”
Pisgah High School didn’t have a track. Yet Bowie still won a state long jump title (in the third or fourth meet of her life, she estimates) and then two more as a junior and senior.
“It was kind of overwhelming,” Bowie said, “because who wins state championships their first year competing and has absolutely no idea what they’re doing?”
Bowie’s name is on five or six banners inside the Pisgah High School gym wall for track and basketball.
“She was by far one of the best athletes,” Crockett said. “It was just, how far can this go?”
At first, about 100 miles south. Bowie, a homebody, joined the track and field team at Southern Miss.
Southern Miss coach Kevin Stephen marveled at Bowie’s ability to power through grueling workouts and said in her first race or two as a freshman, she dropped two seconds off her high school best in the 200m.
Stephen told Bowie she could be world class in the 200m if she focused on it, but she humbly brushed away the notion and continued to focus on the long jump, winning the 2011 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships.
“She’s not about second place,” Stephen said. “She’s all about putting in the work to get that top spot. … We only scratched the surface the type of athlete she was.”
Bowie graduated with a psychology degree in December 2012, but before that she couldn’t eat, speak or compete that summer. She suffered a broken jaw in an off-the-track freak accident and missed the Olympic Trials.
She watched the London Olympic long jump, won by fellow Magnolia State native Brittney Reese, and thought, I could beat these women.
She showed professional promise in the long jump and finished second at the U.S. Indoor Championships in February (Reese did not compete there). But she wasn’t satisfied enough and considered quitting the sport in her first year as a pro. Her grandmother wouldn’t allow it.
“She’s the greatest support system I’ve ever had, and she’s never been to the track,” Bowie said.
In March, Bowie finished last in long jump qualifying at the World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, and called her agent who had lobbied on behalf of her sprinting potential. She was ready for a change, ready to run.
Bowie moved from the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., and began working with sprint coach Lance Brauman in Clermont, Fla., full time in the spring. Brauman is best known as the coach of Tyson Gay, a longtime rival of Usain Bolt who just finished a one-year doping suspension.
“It has been the piece that’s been missing from the puzzle,” said Bowie, working in particular to develop her start technique. “I was so used to training on my own and not having anyone to push me.”
Bowie said she feels no added pressure with her ascent over the last two months, with victories in Rome, New York and Oregon. She hasn’t changed. She still picks up her phone before and after races and calls her grandmother, who cries out of joy. She still carries books in her purse, three currently, and leans on inspirational phrases.
“My deepest fear is not that I am inadequate,” Bowie texted, paraphrasing a line from Marianne Williamson‘s “A Return To Love.” “My deepest fear is that I am powerful beyond measure.”
Bowie has not forgotten the long jump. She plans to jump again at European meets later this season, but the focus this week is on the 100m. Her sister flies to Sacramento to watch the semis and finals Friday.
“It’s like I run the race with her,” Tamarra said. “When she’s on that line, I’m about to run it, too. It’s always been like that.”
Bowie’s performances are well-known at Pisgah High School, where the principal has staff laminate and post Bowie’s articles and results around the halls.
“Do I feel like I have what it takes to beat the best? Yes, I do feel that way,” Bowie said. “I just didn’t expect it to happen right now.”
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