Gwen Torrence had the dogs literally yapping at her heels during last Friday night's Panasonic Millrose Games in New York. Beneath one end of the stands at Madison Square Garden, not far from the starting line for the women's 55-meter dash, were cages and cages of canines waiting to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which would begin three days later. Frankly, the dogs had a lousy view, and they were complaining loudly.
And who could blame them? Torrence, the hottest sprinter this side of Ben Johnson, was about to put her 33-race, two-year indoor dash winning streak on the line against Evelyn Ash-ford, who holds the world best (6.54), and other top rivals. Not only that, Torrence all but expected to lose.
Which is typical. Torrence won NCAA titles for Georgia last year at 55, 100 and 200 meters, yet she lacks both a powerful build—"I'm always the puniest sprinter in the crowd," she says, referring to her 5'7", 123-pound frame—and the brash confidence common to sprinters. In 1984, for example, just 19 years old, she was too scared to show up for the U.S. Olympic Trials, even though she had qualified in the 100 meters. As her coach, Lewis Gainey, puts it, "She felt she didn't belong there."
This has been a problem for some time. As a Decatur, Ga., 10th-grader, she had to be coaxed into trying a 220-yard dash by a phys-ed teacher. Wearing low-heeled black leather pumps, she unofficially shattered the state record—yet even then Torrence was reluctant to join the track team. She did. finally, but continued to train in her street shoes because "I felt [spikes] were too hot for my skinny little legs."
February 15, 1988
Her development since then has been doubly impressive. On the track, she won the 100- and 200-meter titles at the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, last July and finished fifth in the 200 at the World Championships in Rome last September. Off the track, having entered Georgia in 1983 as a student in the controversial Developmental Studies Program—the focus of the Jan Kemp case (SI, Feb. 24, 1986)—Torrence is now a dean's list student two quarters short of a degree in early childhood education. She spent much of last season student-teaching handicapped youngsters, a field in which she plans to make her career. Torrence says she draws inspiration from her 39-year-old brother, Charles, who was paralyzed from the waist down while playing street football 15 years ago.
In the first qualifying heat of the women's 55 on Friday night, Torrence extended her victory streak to 33 races with a 6.71 clocking. The 30-year-old Ashford, looking strong in her comeback from an injury-plagued year, won the second heat in 6.74. "She looked real good," Torrence would say later. "I was a little worried about that."
Torrence tried to block out the public-address announcer's lengthy recital of her accomplishments as she prepared for the finals. "If I listen to that stuff about the winning streak, it gets to me," she said. "I can tell when I line up. It makes my arms all shaky."
This time when she lined up, her arms were stock-still, and she and Ashford broke from the blocks even. Torrence edged ahead at 10 meters and then steadily pulled away. "She scorched the last 20," said an approving Gainey later.
Torrence broke the tape in 6.64, with Ashford second in 6.71. Both vanished under the stands for an instant, then Torrence came bounding back up the track pumping her arms in delight, her face a picture of unabashed joy. She had won her third straight Millrose title and her 34th consecutive race, and had surprised even herself. "I didn't think I was prepared," she said. "T was running a little bit scared."
Antonio McKay made his mark on the men's 400 field with muscle. He and Michael Franks engaged in such fierce elbowing in the 2¾ race that McKay, the world indoor champion in the 400, had to throw his arms up to hold his balance in Turn 2. "When you have fast guys in a race like this, you're going to get some bumping," McKay said later. "All of them want to get to the front."
Franks held the lead until the gun lap, when McKay bolted past. Pulling away, despite a taped left ankle, which he sprained in December, McKay crossed the line in 47.00, with Franks next in 47.78. Astonishingly, even with all the early jostling McKay had equaled his world-best time for an 11-laps-to-the-mile track, set on the same track last year. (On Saturday, Thomas Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánlebe of East Germany lowered his own official world-indoor 400 record to 45.05 on a 200-meter banked, rubberized track in Sindelfingen, West Germany).
McKay, who burst upon the track scene in 1984 with a boastful flourish and an Olympic bronze medal in his specialty, plus a gold as a member of the U.S. 4 X 400 relay team, has lately been stung by the fickleness of his sport. In 1985 he ran infrequently and dropped out of the world's Top 10. Last season he was bothered by a variety of injuries and again went unranked. His income has plummeted accordingly. When his shoe contract with Puma expired in December, it was not renewed. When The Athletics Congress announced it was giving $1,500 monthly training stipends to 28 top U.S. track and field athletes in its Operation Seoul program, McKay was not included.
"For TAC to say I can't receive the money, it's like them saying, Antonio McKay, we don't believe in you. We don't believe you can make the [Olympic] team," he said. "It's like a kick in the face."
McKay has to support a 20-month-old daughter, Antoinetta, as well as his wife, Trinna, whom he is helping put through graduate school in chemistry at Georgia Tech. The muscular 6-foot, 165-pound runner hinted that out of financial necessity he might soon consider playing football, a sport he essayed as a freshman wide receiver at Georgia Tech in 1983. "This may be my last Millrose meet," McKay said. "This may be my last year in track. And that's the blues."
Even the glum McKay, however, was eager to see what was expected to be a quick Wanamaker Mile. As it turned out, the key factor in this year's race was that seven-time Wanamaker champion Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland, who's recovering from a torn ligament in his back, spent the event in a tux and a headset doing TV color. That left the door open for his countryman Marcus O'Sullivan to burst from the field with a lap and a half left and cruise home unchallenged in 3:56.89, well ahead of runner-up Peter Elliott of England (3:57.63). "There's a great Irish tradition here," noted Elliott, world championship silver medalist at 800 meters last summer, who was running his first indoor mile. "I suppose if my name was O'Elliott, I might have won tonight."
More memorable was the women's mile, a duel between Kirsty Wade of England and Romania's Doina Melinte. For 10 of the 11 laps Melinte stalked Wade, hovering just a stride behind. Finally, at the gun, the race broke open. Melinte burst to the lead. She raced around the banked wooden oval like the indoor veteran she is. Melinte, 31. the 800-meter gold medalist and 1,500-meter silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics, has become something of a regular on the North American indoor circuit. Since arriving here last month with her coach and husband, Dorin, and several other Romanian runners, she had won five of five races.
Melinte made it six of six. She reached the tape in 4:21.45, the second-fastest clocking in indoor history, behind Mary Decker Slaney's world record of 4:20.5, established in San Diego in 1982. "Was able running world record," said Melinte, in the best English she could command, "but does not understand time." In other words, she hadn't known how fast she was going. If she had, she might have been able to break the record.
Melinte was selected as the meet's outstanding performer. She explained that she always likes coming to New York because, as she put it, the city "is very, very agglomeration." There's no agglomeration, of course, quite like the Millrose Games, in which young sprinters blossom and old dogs always seem to show off new tricks.