Olympic gold medalist sprinter Tori Bowie’s autopsy included an easy-to-overlook, one-line notation beneath the heading Medical History: “Bipolar disorder.”
On the eve of the first world track championships since Bowie’s passing, AP sportswriters Eddie Pells and Pat Graham teamed up to report exclusively on the mental health struggles that led up to the star athlete’s death April 23 from complications during childbirth at the age of 32.
The two had covered Bowie, who won three medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, for many years and had heard whispers of her difficulties. A few weeks after her death, the autopsy listed the cause as “complications in childbirth.”
While other outlets pursued the angle that Black women suffer disproportionately from pregnancy complications, Pells opted to explore another dimension of her story, her struggles with mental health.
He sought out people at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and within track and field, to find out how a world-famous champion, who was eight months into what would be considered an at-risk pregnancy, came to die alone at home without medical care or anyone to look after her.
Bowie’s body was found more than a week after anyone had heard from her. Sources pointed Eddie to a neighbor who had alerted the Olympic committee after he’d seen her sleeping near a park and on the floor of a local recreation center. Pells and Graham got police and court records and recordings of 911 calls that showed her house was in foreclosure, and that people around the neighborhood were concerned for her well-being. One 911 caller said she had been living without power.
Pells verified that Bowie hadn’t sought mental health services to which she was entitled from the Olympic Committee and USA Track and Field. Graham interviewed her former coach, Al Joyner, who revealed some of her struggles, which had been documented in track publications. Pells and Graham worked with Top Stories editor Mary Sedor, and photo editor Kii Sato worked on a custom presentation.
The story moved the day before this year’s track and field world championships began in Budapest, generating conversation there. It became a minipackage on mental health, with a follow-up about former decathlete Trey Hardee and his struggles.
The story garnered over 40,000 page views on AP News. It also had great impact in search ranking, as one of the top results in SERP.
For sensitively telling the story of a great athlete who became isolated from her peers and died tragically alone in part because of neglect of her mental health difficulties, Pells and Graham are Best of the Week — First Winner.