American track and field athlete
In 1995, sprinter Gwen Torrence was ranked No. 1 in the 100 meters and the 200 meters by Track and Field
News ; the magazine also named her the top American athlete overall. She has won numerous championships, and at the 1992 Olympics, won gold medals in the 200 meters and 4 × 100 meter relay, as well as a silver medal in the 4 × 100 meter relay. At the 1996 Olympics, she won bronze in the 100 meters and gold in the 4 × 100 meter relay.
"Shoooosh, She Was Gone"
Torrence was the youngest of five children in a working-class family; because she was seven years younger than the next-oldest sibling, she received a lot of attention from her older brothers and sisters. Torrence's mother, Dorothy, told Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated that Torrence was born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and that at birth, "she had a strange look in her eye that I never saw in any of my children." Torrence was walking at eight months, and began running when she was three years old. "You'd set her down," her mother told Reilly, "and shoooosh, she was gone."
When Torrence was an infant, her family lived in a housing project in Atlanta; the project was so filled with crime, drugs, and danger that locals called it "Vietnam." By the time Torrance began school, however, they had moved to a better neighborhood in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, where Torrence attended Columbia High School. A tough child, she was known for beating up anyone who challenged her or hassled her. Paradoxically, she was also known for her sense of fashion, and was voted best dressed girl in the school by her peers.
Torrence's running ability and hot temper combined one day when a fellow student, Fred Lane, teased her by taking her purse and running off with it. Torrence, who was wearing pumps, tight jeans, and a short jacket, took off after him and caught him after a 70-yard spring, snatching her purse out of his hands. Lane later went on to become a football player at Georgia.
Physical education teacher and coach Ray Bonner saw the chase and was astounded that a girl could run down an athlete like Lane. Bonner told Reilly, "We thought Fred Lane was the fastest thing since sliced bread, and she walked him down!" However, he had to convince her to give running a try. She planned to become a hairdresser and had no interest in sports. And she did not want to wear running shoes or athletic shorts, because she felt too conspicuous and ugly in them; she was embarrassed because she thought her legs were too thin.
Bonner let her wear whatever she wanted to wear as long as she ran, and during one gym class in tenth grade, Torrance set an unofficial record in the 200-yard dash. She was wearing patent-leather pumps. After this, Bonner insisted that she wear the proper clothes and shoes to run in; according to Great Women in Sports, he told her that God would be angry with her if she wasted her natural talent.
Torrence went on to become a high school All-American and three-time state champion in the 100 meters and 200 meters. At the 1983 TAC Junior Olympics during her senior year, she won gold medals in both these events. Torrence received an athletic scholarship to the University of Georgia and began her studies there in 1983. She began by taking remedial classes. After four quarters in that program, she moved into the mainstream curriculum, and eventually made the dean's list.
|1965||Born in Atlanta, Georgia|
|1980-83||State champion in 100 meters and High School All-American|
|1983-87||Attends University of Georgia|
|1984||Qualifies for Olympic trials, but decides not to compete|
|1988||Competes in Seoul Olympics|
|1992||Competes in Barcelona Olympics|
|1995-96||Widely considered the fastest woman in the world|
|1996||Competes in Atlanta Olympics|
|1997||Retires from competition to become a hair stylist and raise her children|
In 1984, Torrence qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials, but she did not believe she was good enough to make the team, so she did not go to the trials at all. In 1986, Torrence beat 1984 Olympic gold medalist Evelyn Ashford in the 55-meter dash at the Millrose Games. She won with a time of 6.57 seconds, a Millrose Games record. In 1987, she won NCAA championships in the 55 meters, 100 meters, and 200 meters, and won gold medals in the 100 meters and 200 meters at the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
Competes in Olympics
In 1988, Torrence went to the Olympic Games is Seoul, Korea. She came in fifth in the 100-meter finals and sixth in the 200-meter finals. In 1989, Torrence became pregnant; the pregnancy was difficult, and she was confined to bed for three months. Because of this enforced rest, she lost a great deal of her strength and conditioning. Her son, Manley Waller, Jr., was born late in 1989, and she realized that she had to regain her ability to run.
In 1990, Torrence did not win races, but she kept training, and in 1991, she came in second in the 100 meters and the 200 meters at the world championships. The first-place winner, German runner Katrin Krabbe tested positive for an illegal performance-enhancing drug, but because of a technicality, her medals were not given to Torrence.
Torrence went to the 1992 Olympics, and came in fourth in the 100-meter sprint final. According to Great Women in Sports, Torrence said that she believed some of the other runners had taken performance-enhancing drugs. She didn't accuse anyone by name, but other runners were offended, and in the press, some writers commented that Torrence was simply suffering from a case of "sour grapes" because others had beaten her. Torrence eventually had to make a public apology. Perhaps fueled by anger over this incident, Torrence then won the gold medal in the 200 meters, won another gold in the 4 × 100 relay, and won silver in the 4 × 400 relay.
In 1995, Torrence injured her right hamstring and knee, but continued to train, and won gold medals in the 100 meter and 200 meter at the U.S. outdoor championships. She also won gold in the 100 meters at the world championships. Although she also came in first in the 200 meters, she was disqualified because she stepped on a lane marker.
Fastest Woman in the World
By 1996, Torrence was considered the fastest woman in the world, but she was resistant to the fame that came along with the title. She told Reilly, "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 being a perfect person." In truth, Torrence would rather have spent her time shopping, eating fast food at the mall, watching daytime television, and raising her son.
Over the course of her career, Torrence had become known for her outspokenness; she was not a people-pleaser, and admitted to Karen Springer in Newsweek that she was often "frosty" to other athletes, fans, or even her husband. Although she occasionally wished she had the same gracious personality as famed track athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee , "I don't," she told Springer. And her husband, Manley Waller, added, "She don't put on no phony act."
Torrence looked forward to the 1996 Olympics, held in her hometown of Atlanta. According to Great Women in Sports, she told a Track and Field reporter that the Games being held in Atlanta was "a gift from God. He didn't like what happened to me in '92, so he's trying to make up for that by bringing the Games here." At the 1996 Olympics, Torrence won a gold medal as a member of the 4 × 100 meter relay, and won a bronze medal in the 100 meters. In 2002, Torrence was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1986||Gold medal, 55-meter dash, Millrose Games|
|1987||Gold medals, 55, 100, and 200 meters, NCAA Championships|
|1987||Gold medals, 100 and 200 meters, World University Games|
|1991||Silver medals, 100 and 200 meters, World Championships|
|1992||Gold medals, 200 meters and 4 × 100 meter relay; silver medal, 4 × 400 meter relay, Olympic Games|
|1995||Gold medal, 100 and 200 meters, U.S. Outdoor Championships; gold medal, 100 meters, World Championships|
|1995||Top Athlete Overall|
|1996||Gold medal, 4 × 100 meter relay, and bronze medal, 100 meters, Olympic Games|
|2002||Inducted into Track and Field Hall of Fame|
Where Is She Now?
Torrence quit competing after the 1997 season. She now lives in Lithonia, Georgia, where she is finally living her long-held dream of working as a hair stylist and raising her two children, Manley Jr. and E'mon.
"Track is OK, But It's Not My Life"
Torrence told Springer that after the Games she was looking forward to simply raising her son, eating fast food, and relaxing. She had never been fully committed to her track career, and ran simply because she had the talent and the ability to do so; she was never as driven or as consumed by her sport as some other athletes. She told Springer, "Track is OK, but it's not my life. Many days I think, 'What am I doing, a 30-year-old woman out here?'"
"Gwen Torrence," Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Bloom, Marc, "The World's Fastest Mom," Runner's World, (May, 1996): 42.
Reilly, Rick, "She Stands Alone," Sports Illustrated, (June 10, 1996): 92.
Springer, Karen, "She Can Run with the Wolves. And Bite, Too," Newsweek, (June 10, 1996): 76.
USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, www.usatf.org/ (January 27, 2003).
Sketch by Kelly Winters