Whoever said, "you can run, but you can't hide" was wrong. At the moment that is precisely what sprinter Gwen Torrence is doing—running to prepare for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on July 15-23, and hiding from her rivals.
This is an article from the May 23, 1988 issue
Last year Torrence swept the indoor circuit, winning 16 straight races at 55 meters and 60 yards, including the NCAA indoor 55-meter title. Outdoors she won NCAA championships at 100 and 200 meters and the 200 at the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. At the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, she won gold medals in the 100 and 200 and the 4 X 100-meter relay, in which she ran anchor. At the World Championships in Rome, Torrence, though she didn't make the 100 final, was fifth in the 200, behind Silke Gladisch of East Germany, Florence Griffith of the U.S., Merlene Ottey of Jamaica and Pam Marshall of the U.S.
This year, the 22-year-old University of Georgia senior picked up where she left off, taking 38 straight indoor wins, including heats and semifinals, into New York City's Madison Square Garden for the TAC championships in February. There, despite a horrendous head cold and a terrible start, she ran down Evelyn Ashford in the time of 6.66 seconds for 55 meters. The finish was so close that Ashford thought Torrence had won, while Torrence thought Ashford had won; the judges thought they were both right and declared it a dead heat.
So why is this woman lying low?
Torrence's astonishing chase aside, the TAC race raised doubts about her Olympic prospects: What would that slow start and late acceleration mean at longer distances outdoors? Could she sustain that explosive power for 100 or 200 meters?
Torrence has spent the past three months trying to answer those questions. Having used up her collegiate eligibility, she is concentrating mostly on the 200 and 400, with some 100-meter races thrown in for good measure. It's a quirky strategy for someone whose forte has been short distances indoors.
"If I can survive the 400, I can survive the 200, and if I can survive the 200, I can survive the 100," she says. Torrence and her coach have yet to decide which distances she'll run at the TAC outdoor championships on June 16-18, but there is some basis for her logic.
"I'm trying to avoid running against people I'm going to run against in the Olympic trials," Torrence says. "I'm trying not to run against Evelyn [Ashford] or Pam [Marshall]. It's just too early to be running that fast. I want to peak at the trials in July."
She thinks she will. "I know I'm in shape. I'm confident I'm going to do well in the trials," she says. On the other hand, she confesses that outdoor races have not been her strongest suit and admits, "I am used to losing outdoors."
Well, that's stretching it a bit. Indeed, her speed seems tailor-made for proving her wrong—and for bailing her out of the tight situations her contradictory nature sets up for her.
Torrence, who's a striking 5'7", 123-pounds, delights in making her friends admit they used to think she was, in Gwen's words, "a skinny, big-nosed, ugly girl." She loves to watch videotapes of herself winning races, but gets the biggest kick out of the 60-meter dash on Feb. 14 when she fell across the finish line in Fairfax, Va. "I look goofy. It's a little like I'm smiling and tumbling over and over and over," says Torrence. The funniest part of all, which she neglects to mention, is that in the race she tied Alice Brown's four-year-old American mark of 7.18 seconds.
Torrence says she hates to work out and hates not to work out. She says her unbeaten streak puts no pressure on her at all and that, yes, of course, the unbeaten streak puts lots of pressure on her.
There are few things Torrence loves without reservation: television; clothes; sleep; greasy food; children; her mother, Dorothy Torrence, for whom she plans to buy a house this summer; her "motivator" and boyfriend, sprinter Manley Waller, to whom she gave a tiny diamond earring, with the explanation, "Some girls like a man with a job and no pizzazz; I like a man with an earring"; and her friends and former teammates, high jumper Donna Ellerson and sprinter Sandra Smith, who used to greet her after meets, she says, "like puppies waiting on their biscuits."
Toward the rest of the world Torrence is deeply ambivalent. When called upon to be charming she can be sullen, and when not called upon, she can be unexpectedly disarming. At a press luncheon in New York City, Torrence sauntered to the front of the room when it was her turn to speak and stood at the microphone, calmly chewing a mouthful of food, napkin in hand. Then she swallowed, said her "Happy to be here" and slowly walked back to her seat. "I don't like to hurry," she says. Funny words for a sprinter.
"I have a God-given talent," she says matter-of-factly. "If I really tried, there's no telling what I could do. But I don't take vitamins. I eat greasy food. I'm living at McDonald's. I'm a burger-and-fries, chicken, hot dog and steak girl. One year I tried to change, but I can't make myself eat leafy greens. Some people work out twice a day. I can't see working out twice a day."
Instead, says Torrence, "I sleep till 11. Then I watch game shows—The Newlywed Game and Concentration. I take a shower at 12. Then at 12:30 I watch Ryan's Hope and make lunch. At 1 it's All My Children. And at 2 I work out—on the track three days a week, with weights two days. At 5 I goof around and talk with my friends. Then I come home and watch more TV."
Torrence's sprinting style is as contradictory as her character and just as deeply rooted. The slow start followed by a vengeful acceleration seems to be patterned on the unusual circumstances of her birth.
"Before Gwen came along, I had two boys and two girls," says Dorothy, "and I thought, that's it." But then, 17 years after her first child and seven years after the fourth, she says, "Here comes Gwen." It was Torrence's first late start.
Gwendolyn Lenna (pronounced li-NAY) Torrence was born on June 12, 1965, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She spent the first five days of her life in an incubator. But the minute she came home, she was ready to move. "The first time I laid eyes on Gwen," Dorothy says, "she had this look in her eyes. I didn't tell anybody, but I said to myself, This baby's going places. She didn't want to lie down like a baby. So I carried her on my shoulder."
At seven months, she was walking. At a year, she was talking. At a year and a half, she was shopping. Sort of. She would go to the grocery store next door to the family home in Atlanta and give the owners a hard time because she wanted something she couldn't express. Her brother Willie, 10 years her senior, would come in, see what she was after, buy it for her and bring Gwen home.
When Gwen was seven, her elder brother Charles was paralyzed from the waist down in a pickup football game, and when she was eight, her father died of a stroke. Dorothy supported the family by working as a nanny and housekeeper. And Willie took care of Gwen around the housing project where they lived.
Now a warehouse supervisor in Decatur, Willie was the first in a long line of guardian angels—friends, coaches, academic advisers, admirers—who have tried to save Torrence from her wild willfulness. "If there was something Gwen didn't want to do in school," says Dorothy, "she would run home, and Willie would take her back. When she'd get into fights with other girls, Willie would come rescue her."
Gwen says she lucked out by being the youngest child. Not only did she have Willie to watch over her but also, unlike her brothers and sisters, she left the project while still young. As a result she attended Columbia High School in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta, where she met her second guardian angel, phys ed teacher Ray Bonner.
"The first time I saw Gwen run, a football player by the name of Fred Lane [who was to become a wide receiver at Georgia] lit out after her on the track," recalls Bonner. "Fred couldn't catch her. And he was fast."
Bonner had convinced Torrence to run, but she refused to put on athletic shorts or shoes. "She was ashamed of her little skinny legs," says Bonner. And so a legend was made: during an outdoor phys ed class Torrence unofficially broke the state girls' prep record in the 220 while wearing patent leather pumps. After that, says Bonner, "I told her that God gave her a gift, and if she didn't use it, he was going to be very upset."
Torrence agreed to join the high school track team, but she preferred practicing alone. "I used to pick up Gwen in the evening," says Bonner, "and go to the track after everyone else had left."
Bonner's method worked. "From then on," he says, "it was the Gwen Torrence show." In more ways than one. "Before every race in high school Gwen would put on makeup, make sure her hair was right. Then she would stand behind her blocks and take an extra long time to get in them, so everybody would be waiting on her." And she was as slow getting out of the blocks as she was getting in them. "I used to worry about her start," says Bonner, "but then I saw she was always ahead at the end."
Torrence, a high school All-America and three-time state champion, won both the 100- and 200-meter titles at the TAC Junior Olympics after her senior year and was recruited by universities all over the country. "But she didn't care," says Bonner. "She said she wanted to be a hair stylist, to work at Rich's or Macy's department store."
Bonner wouldn't let her turn down a scholarship, though. He told her: "You're a black female. You need that diploma." Grudgingly, she went to the University of Georgia, where she was enrolled in the developmental studies program—the same remedial program that gained notoriety for its coddling of jocks when English teacher Jan Kemp sued the university in 1983. Torrence, like all students in the program, had four quarters in which to move out of developmental studies and join the university mainstream.
"I had never written a paper," she says. "I thought I'd never get out of there." She did, though, in 1985, and a year later she made the dean's list.
It was about the same time that Torrence began to make her presence known on the indoor track scene. In 1986, she won her first indoor NCAA championship, in Oklahoma City. At long last, she was beginning to realize that "track and field had opened a lot of doors."
Before college, says Torrence, "I was stuck on black and white. I was prejudiced. Whites used to scare me because they were so white I associated them with ghosts." But during the freshman track team's orientation, "a white woman from Canada was drinking something and asked if I wanted some. I said, 'Why? Are you really going to give it to me?' She gave me her drink. Then she drank after me without wiping it off, and I drank after her without wiping it off. I asked her about it, and she said, 'What's the difference? Lips are lips.' That opened my eyes."
Since then, Torrence has traveled around the world—to Japan, where "people give presents and want nothing back"; to "the civilized part of Germany, where they have Burger King"; to the Soviet Union, where "nobody smiles, and people laugh at our clothes"; to Italy, where "words don't describe how good-looking the men are."
Torrence has come a long way, resistantly. But of all the changes she has gone through, she believes the turning point in her career came only when she beat 1984 Olympic gold medalist Ashford in the 1986 Millrose Games, setting a meet record of 6.57 seconds for 55 meters. "Before that I was running good times, but nobody noticed because I hadn't beat Evelyn," she says.
Which brings up Torrence's present task—dethroning Ashford. Can she do it? No one doubts Torrence's speed. "The concern is how long she can maintain it," says her Georgia coach, Lewis Gainey. "It's a question of strength."
"I believe that at 55 meters Gwen is going full tilt," says Bonner. "If she accelerated in the 100 the way she does in the 55, her body would explode."
Torrence, too, has qualms about longer distances. Even though she thinks she has a better chance of winning the 200 than the 100, she complains that in the 200, "you get butt-lock." And lest anyone think that pain is not the issue, note that Torrence wears clip-on earrings because she doesn't want to have her ears pierced. "I hate pain," she says.
Pain and Ashford are but two of the things standing in Torrence's way to the Olympic team. There are also sprint specialists Griffith, Marshall, Brown and Gail Devers, and, of course, the most frightful nemesis of all, Gwen Torrence.
In her best I-care-but-what-can-I-do manner, Torrence says, "God just gave us a little more speed, but on the day of the finals, one of us will have to be faster than the rest." She has no tricks to make sure she's the one. "I'm not into psyching," she says. "I just run."