An old article from Sports Illustrated 10 June 1996: Vol. 84 Issue 23. p. 92-96;98-100
Section: OLYMPICS [BONUS PIECE]
U.S. OLYMPIC SPRINTER GWEN TORRENCE MAY BE THE FASTEST WOMAN ON EARTH, BUT SHE’S SLOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND EVEN SLOWER TO GIVE CREDIT TO HER COMPETITION
Do not go up to Gwen Torrence at a McDonald’s and say something like Gwen Torrence eats at McDonald’s? It makes her so mad. “Why can’t I eat at McDonald’s?” she will snap. You’re here, aren’t you?" Also, do not walk up to her at a mall and say, “You shop here?” Somebody did that the other day at the mall near her home in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, and it made her livid. “Why do I have to go to Buckhead to shop?” she will grumble, referring to the yuppie enclave. “Why can’t I shop here? I live in DeKalb County. It’s black, but we have money too, you know.” It is especially unwise to go up to her in a restaurant and ask, “Aren’t you Gwen Torrence?” Never looking up from her plate, she will mutter, “No.”
“Why do you do that?” her mama, Dorothy, will ask.
“Mama!” Gwen will reply. “You don’t know what people are gonna do to you!”
You can’t trust 'em, not at first. They will try to cheat you, take what’s yours, embarrass you in front of everybody. They did that to Torrence in Tokyo in 1991. They did it in Barcelona in 1992 and in Goteborg, Sweden, in 1995 and right here in Georgia the same year. No. You keep your head down and give away nothing. Besides, she’s not lying when she denies who she is, not really. In her mind she isn’t Gwen Torrence. She never asked to be that Gwen Torrence. She never wanted to be the World’s Fastest Woman. She never dreamed of being Hometown Girl Makes Gold. You know what she really wanted to be? She really wanted to be a hairdresser. Get a little chair in a nice department store and maybe someday run her own shop. Weaves, colors, perms.
But two Olympic gold medals, three world championships and eight national titles later, it looks as if there is no going back. Torrence, 31 on June 12, is the fastest, most versatile, most accomplished female sprinter in the world. The 1996 Olympics are headed straight for her backyard–“God sent them here to make up for what happened to me in 1992,” she says–and there is nothing for her to do but run in them and star in them. But that doesn’t mean she has to like it.
“It’s just not the same anymore,” she says, flipping back and forth between Jenny Jones (“Talking with a Parent about One’s Sex Life”) and Gordon Elliott (“Sexiest Stud Competition”) as she sits in her living room. “I don’t want to be the person society wants me to be. I don’t want to be a celebrity, I know that. I don’t want to be a star, walking on eggshells, afraid to do this, afraid to do that, with people who don’t even know me automatically making me a role model for their kids! I don’t want the pressure of trying to be a perfect person. It’s always, If you win in Atlanta. If. Well, why can’t doing my best be good enough? If you’re my fan when I win, why can’t you be my fan when I lose?”
This is going to be a tough sell, forcing fame and fortune past a frown. Still, everybody tries. LeRoy Walker, the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, came in just to try to get her pumped up. “These could be your Games, Gwen!” he said. She was not moved. Her husband, Manley Waller Jr., tells her every day how fast she is going to run, how many world records she is going to break, how many medals she could win (four) and how the world treats a winner of four Olympic medals (like a returning astronaut).
Torrence isn’t geeked up about any of it. “My husband tends to think I can break the world record in the 100 meters [10.49 seconds, held by Florence Griffith Joyner],” she says, staring straight at Ricki Lake (“How to Break It Off”), “but I don’t see myself running that fast. I’d be the first one to faint.”
Besides, what if she actually did win the 100, which she’s favored to do? And win the 200, which she’s also favored to do? And run the scorched-track anchor leg that she always runs in the 4x100, which the U.S. is favored to win? And run her electric leg in the 4x400, which the U.S. would be favored to win if she ran, because she is one of the world’s fastest women in the 400, even though she rarely runs that distance because, as she used to tell her coach, “it makes my booty lock up”? Can you imagine what a pain all that would be? “When you start winning, that’s when it stops being fun,” Torrence says, flipping to Rolonda (“Men Who Want to Pose for Playgirl”). “Pretty soon it’s, ‘No, I don’t want to do this. No, I don’t want to do that.’ Oh, look at that man! Gross!”
It does seem terribly unfair, but what else is new? Torrence was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, and she has fought the world ever since. “They didn’t let me see my precious child for five days,” says Dorothy. “And when they did, there was a strange look in her eye that I never saw in any of my children.” At eight months Gwen was walking. At three years, running. “You’d set her down, and shoooosh, she was gone,” says Dorothy.
Gwen remembers herself as the “ugly, skinny, big-nosed kid,” and she can hardly remember a week when she did not have to whip somebody’s butt to keep him from noticing. One time, when she was about nine, a boy hit her with a softball, and she ran home, got two butcher knives and chased that boy through the neighborhood. It was only later that somebody got close enough to tell her the ball had hit her by accident. “Lord, Gwen,” the boy said later. “You sure are quick to fight.”
Quick to run, quick to fight–that would be Gwen. Her mama had a quick temper too. There wasn’t anybody, boy or girl, whom Dorothy didn’t whip in her one-room schoolhouse in the little town of Norwood, Ga. “Couldn’t nobody say anything to me,” Dorothy says. Except her first husband. Charlie Torrence gave her a black eye, and she left him. Just took the five kids and left. Gwen, the baby, was four. They moved into a place in Decatur with no stove, no refrigerator and not much heat, stayed a year, then moved into a Decatur project called East Lake Meadows, which became so thick with gang members and drugs and killing that it was soon known as Vietnam.
As a child Gwen spent most of her time at a neighbor’s house where there were 16 kids, most of whom she beat up and befriended, in that order. Her brother Charles almost died in Vietnam; he was carrying the football in a street game one day in 1972, and when he was tackled by several players, he flipped and broke his neck. He hasn’t walked since that day. The next year their father died of a stroke. “When you seen the things I’ve seen,” Gwen says, “you can’t help but be like this–aggressive.”
And so the little girl with that strange, hard look in her eye grew up as cold and hard as her old kitchen floor. Every girl in the neighborhood learned to be scared of Gwen, and plenty of the boys learned too. “I’d find myself fighting and not know why,” Gwen says. One time she beat up her best friend because she heard people were more scared of the friend than they were of her. And then her best friend’s bigger, older sister told Gwen to meet her after school. Gwen was scared. “I remember closing my eyes and going for it,” she says, “just arms flying, head down, wham! And I won!” It was only years later that she really understood the older sister. Gwen saw her at a public gathering, and they had a talk. “And she was so nice,” Gwen remembers.
It was funny that someone so soft-looking could leave so many welts. At Columbia High in Decatur, Gwen was voted Best Dressed. She always had on the flashiest outfits, even if her mama had to borrow money to buy them. She had a gift for fashion and hairstyling and makeup. But the hands in those matching white gloves always seemed to be in a ball. In fact, it was Gwen’s temper that first revealed her speed.
She was a sophomore at Columbia High when the fastest guy on the football team, Fred Lane, teased her one day and then playfully snatched her pocketbook and took off. Well, you just don’t mess with Gwen’s accessories. Running in patent leather pumps, tight jeans and a short jacket, she chased Fred and caught him 70 yards out on the football field and snatched the pocketbook back. This is the same Fred Lane who went on to play flanker at Georgia in the mid-1980s.
Columbia’s track coach, Ray Bonner, happened to be watching Gwen and Fred that day. He was thunderstruck. “She walked Fred Lane down!” Bonner recalls. “We thought Fred Lane was the fastest thing since sliced bread, and she walked him down!”
But Gwen did not want to run track. She did not want to run track mostly because she thought gym clothes were ugly, and she didn’t want people to see how skinny her legs were. Bonner went after her and kept after her. He insisted she run the 220 in gym class. She set an unofficial state record–in those patent leather pumps. To get Gwen to run on the school team, Bonner had to drive to her house after practice, drive her to the track, coach her privately and then drive her back, even after she joined the team. In exchange she brought him the state championship in 1983, winning the 100 and 200 and anchoring two victorious relay teams.
“She’d be so frustrating,” Bonner remembers. “She’d be doing her hair and getting her little mirror out of her pocketbook right before a race, while everybody else was getting ready. But then she’d step up and run fast and kick everybody’s butt.” Gwen realized that those were the two things she loved about track: running fast and kicking everybody’s butt.
Age only seemed to make her meaner. At Georgia, where she enrolled on a track scholarship in 1983, Torrence tried to beat up a 6’2" female Swedish volleyball player for patting her on the rear. She went right up to the Swede, eyes to chin (Gwen is 5’8"), and said, “Nuh-uh. Here we don’t do that. I’ll whip your ass, girl.” It was only later, when the girl was able to get close enough to explain that butt-patting is just a friendly thing they do in Sweden, that Torrence understood. “We kinda became friends,” she says.
That’s the basic Torrence M.O.: suspect you, whip you, like you–in that order. “She’s not very trusting of people,” says Bahamian sprinter Pauline Davis, a close friend. “Me, I trust you until you do something. Gwen is just the opposite. She has a wall up. You have to kick that wall down.”
Of course, you do not need to take a Dale Carnegie seminar to be a great sprinter. You need speed, and you need stubbornness. Torrence has gobs of both. When she went home to Decatur from college in the summers, she would work twice as hard as any of the football players who hung around town. “You’d always see her running–in the gym, outside, anywhere,” says Henry Harris, a high school and college teammate of Fred Lane’s. “You’d see her in the hottest part of the day training on the track, and then you’d see her training later that afternoon. And we’d go, ‘Damn, Gwen’s goin’ somewhere.’”
The first place she went after college was the world track and field circuit, where she has left some indelible spike marks. Since 1990 she has won more world-championship and Olympic medals than any other athlete in her sport. During one three-year stretch she won 49 straight races. She has also made more enemies than most people have socks.
Torrence sees a lot of cheaters in her sport, and if there was one thing her mama taught her to hate, it was cheaters. All Dorothy had to do was look out her window and point at the dope sellers on the street. “You see that?” she would say to Gwen. “That’s not right.” Anybody who lied or cheated in Dorothy’s house got the belt.
Right out of the chute, 1991: Torrence goes to the World Championships in Tokyo and wins two silvers; both golds go to Germany’s Katrin Krabbe. Only who should fail a drug test later? Krabbe. Did they give Torrence Krabbe’s two golds the way they gave a gold to Carl Lewis when Ben Johnson proved to have been juiced up at the Seoul Olympics? No. (Krabbe did not test positive until after the World Championships.) A lousy start to things.
And then there is the personal piano Torrence carries on her back: Florence Griffith Joyner. Don’t get Gwen started on Flo-Jo. Since the summer of 1988, when Flo-Jo crushed the world record in the 100 (with that time of 10.49) on a windy day in Indianapolis in July and added the 200 record (21.34 seconds) in Seoul two months later, no female sprinter has come anywhere near her marks. They are so far out of reach that track magazines refer to “the non-Flo-Jo mark of 10.76” when talking about the world record. Do you know that the wind-gauge reading on every other race that day in Indianapolis was never less than 3-point-something meters per second? (Anything over 2.0 invalidates a world record.) That the readings before Flo-Jo’s record and after it were 4-point-something? But for the record itself the gauge read 0.0? “C’mon!” says Torrence. “My heat was 5.0, and I ran 10.78.”
And what of the whispering about Flo-Jo’s using steroids–allegations that have never been proved? “Anybody in their right mind has to wonder,” says Torrence. “There’s no way–no way!–she went from a [personal best of] 10.9 to 10.49. And a 21.9 to 21.3? It doesn’t happen that way. When Ben Johnson came back clean, he was running 10.44. That means she could’ve beaten Ben! Florence has always been gorgeous, but I felt like there was a physical change in her in '88. Now I see her, she has a softer look. You can say she’s not training hard anymore, but facial structure doesn’t change like that. It’s not the same look she had.”
And then there is this little thing inside Torrence that won’t let her take losing all that well. She does not lose often, but when she does, something always seems to divert attention from the losing: a knee injury, fatigue or not having trained to peak for the meet. At the '92 Olympics, after she didn’t win a medal in the 100, which she was expected to do, she blurted out to reporters that two of the three medalists were “dirty.” The medalists were Gail Devers of the U.S. (gold), Juliet Cuthbert of Jamaica (silver) and Irina Privalova of Russia (bronze). Torrence offered no evidence for her charge. Except for creating an international incident and branding Torrence as a sore loser, the accusation went over quite well.
“Gwen Torrence can kiss my ass,” Bob Kersee, Devers’s coach, said by way of a denial. Cuthbert wanted to fight Torrence the next day on the infield. “My mother read what Gwen said about me in Barcelona,” Cuthbert says. “My mother said, ‘Drugs? My girl’s on drugs?’ I had to call her and tell her it wasn’t true.” Writers crucified Torrence for pointing the finger without proof. But why, Torrence wondered, did everybody go mental? To her, these cheaters were just getting what they deserved, which was the belt.
“I was gonna try to get control of the drug problem some kind of way,” Torrence says now. “I was hoping I would win and the message would’ve come across better. What bothered me was that people came up to me afterward and said, ‘This wasn’t the place or the time.’ And I’m like, ‘Why are you guys afraid? You know there’s a problem.’”
What was more amazing was that Torrence came back and won the Olympic 200 five days later, with torrents of rage aimed at her by the world’s sprinters and track press. Talk about stubborn.
“I looked at myself in the mirror, and I kissed myself on both shoulders,” Torrence says about those days in Barcelona. “I knew I had done nothing wrong. When track is all over for me, I want to still have my kidneys and my liver. I don’t want to develop some disease because I wanted to win a race.”
It is good that Torrence likes herself, because she is about as popular on the women’s track scene as bunions. “Nobody likes her,” says Cuthbert. “Nobody on her own team likes her! She’s the biggest bitch in track. I’d like to kick Gwen’s butt, I swear. If she says one more thing to me, I will.”
If this sounds childish, it’s because childishness is at the heart of the 100-meter event. Every little girl sprinted on field day in kindergarten; the winner got a blue ribbon. Then the girls all went on to other things. But sprinters somehow became defined by their talent. The faster you were, the slower you got to walk, the more daring you got to dress. And since the race takes only 11 seconds, the competition among sprinters seems to stretch out in other, odd ways. Cuthbert and Torrence, for instance, seem to have a vogue-a-thon going, with Cuthbert ahead right now in Skimpiest Leotard and Torrence way ahead in Coolest Hair Weaves. (“This one I’ve got on right now?” Torrence says. “Three hundred fifty dollars.”) It’s pretty much a dead heat in Vicious Quotes.
None of that gets to Torrence. But last summer something got to her. At the World Championships in Goteborg she was disqualified in the 200, which she won by four meters, for stepping out of her lane. When the DQ was announced, there were cheers from the Jamaican team and delegation, including second-place finisher Merlene Ottey, then Torrence’s idol, who was declared the winner and who then ripped Torrence in a press conference. That made Torrence cry. She is a crier anyway. She cries over Little House on the Prairie. You should have seen her dissolve in tears on the victory stand in Barcelona at the playing of the national anthem after her victory in the 200. But the '95 worlds were one of the few occasions she let the poisons of the track world get to her tear ducts. “Merlene called me a cheater,” Torrence says. “That hurt me inside.”
But she has had time to think about the Jamaicans and all the other people who would love to see her fall on the bottom of her USA racing skin this summer in Atlanta. “My preacher said something in church the other day,” Torrence says. “He said, ‘How can a person like you when they don’t like themselves?’ When somebody has no reason on this earth to dislike me, they must dislike themselves.”
Torrence is trying to be more careful these days, trying to think things out before she speaks to reporters, trying to bite her lip and unball her fists before proceeding. “She’s just now learning how to control herself, to not let her background creep up like a monster, like an evil twin,” says Davis. “Because one side of Gwen is really great, and the other side is an awful person.”
The problem is, Ms. Awful Person gets most of the press. “Oh, yeah, the media love that type of stuff,” Torrence says, staring at Danny! (special guest: Divine Brown). “They have an obsession with the bad. I’m sorry I’m not this bad person people want me to be. I’m a much better person.” And if she had to go on one of those talk shows to tell her side of the story? “Oprah,” she says. “Definitely Oprah.” (“Widely Hated Track Divas.”)
All of this is what makes Torrence the Reluctant Olympic Heroine. But look at it from her side. If you had a brother who could not run, could not walk, could use only his wrists, neck and head, would you want the world to make a big deal out of how fast you make it from one end of a football field to the other?
Charles Torrence–CT, everybody calls him–is 47 now and weighs maybe 110 pounds. He has been paralyzed for 24 years, since Gwen was six. Next to his home hospital bed in a Decatur apartment that he keeps mostly dark are stacks of videotapes, almost all of races that Gwen has run. “I’m probably her biggest fan,” Charles says, his head back on the pillow. Yet he has seen her run live as a professional only once–at the 1995 Mobil/USA Indoor Championships in Atlanta, where she won the 60. Charles doesn’t get to see Gwen much when she’s not competing, either. (“She’s so busy,” he says.) He hears that the house she lives in is really something, but he hasn’t been in it. He is looking forward to the Olympics, only he doesn’t have a ticket yet. “Maybe if you write it in your magazine, somebody will send me one,” he says.
He really ought to go, because this is fixing to be one delicious 100: Cuthbert, Ottey, Privalova, all of them staring jalapenos at Torrence, and Torrence ready to lay 10-plus seconds of heartburn on them. The only things missing will be the butcher knives. “I know one thing,” says Dorothy Torrence. “People give Gwen a hard time, it just makes her run faster.”
Gwen has a gorgeous six-year-old boy, Little Man (short for Manley), but for some reason the time he comes home from school is the time she gets up from in front of the television set and goes to do her grueling workout. So Dorothy drives over and babysits Little Man and then, around five, takes him over to her house, where she makes dinner for Gwen and Manley and their boy.
Maybe someday, when Gwen retires and leaves the vogue-a-thon, she and Little Man will sort of grow up together. Maybe she can get that little hairdressing shop. And maybe everybody she sees won’t be the next attacker, the next threat, the next cheater. And maybe she will see Ottey at a parade somewhere or Cuthbert at the mall, and they will get close enough to explain, and she will finally understand. After all, how long can you keep coming at the world head down, arms flying, eyes closed?