Jacksonville Sports Day

WEEKEND FEATURE: Torrence Made Her Dreams Come True

ATHENS—-–Gwen Torrence didn’t come to the University of Georgia dreaming of NCAA titles, Olympic glory and being the fastest sprinter in the world. In fact, she wasn’t interested in going to college at all.

“The Olympics are what people dream of, and that wasn’t my dream,” she said. “I wanted to be a hairstylist and go to cosmetology school.”

As it turned out, she ultimately did it all.

Thirty-five years ago, as a junior, Torrence became the first African-American woman to win an NCAA title at Georgia when she won the 55-meter dash at the 1986 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. She won the race again the following year, as well as the 100 and 200 at the 1987 NCAA Outdoor Championships.

“Sometimes it feels like it never happened,” Torrence said. “Like if I’m watching Georgia football on TV and just seeing the history (of the university in a commercial or during the broadcast), it seems like I just can’t believe I’ve been a part of the history.”

It took some convincing for Torrence to even give college a try. Ray Bonner, her coach at Columbia High School, in Decatur, Ga., expended a lot of energy encouraging her to at least give it a shot.

“He talked me into going and I was like, if I don’t like it I’m coming home,” she said. “I got there and it was better than I thought. Sometimes I would walk on campus and I just couldn’t believe that I was there because I didn’t have a goal to go to college.”

The goal was to do what she’s doing now. She started doing hair professionally 20 years ago and in 2010 opened her own salon, Bangz & Tanglez, in Lithonia.

In the time between college and starting her career as a hairstylist, Torrence was one of the top sprinters in the world. Yet if you go in her shop or her home, she said, you won’t see any photos or trophies of her exceptional track career. To see her Olympic gold medals, you’ve got to go to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon.

“It’s something for people to see,” she said. “Sometimes I want to get them but sometimes I don’t. It feels better to have them there. The world is so crazy and I don’t want somebody thinking that I’ve got them sitting around the house.”

Torrence said some of her clients know about her great track career, but if they do it’s not because they heard about it from her.

“Some of them have been coming to me for 7, 8, 10, 13 years and don’t know, and all of them get mad at me when they find out,” she said with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to say?’

“I don’t mention it at all. I let them come to me, I let them get to know me and to see that I’m still a regular person. I just so happened to have been in the Olympics.”

Torrence was way more than just an Olympian, though it took some doing to get to that point.

When she got to Georgia in the fall of 1983, Torrence was a very good sprinter without being all that interested in track. When she was in New York for the prestigious Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden during her sophomore or junior year — she can’t remember which — Torrence had never heard of Evelyn Ashford, the great American sprinter.

“I didn’t know much about track, at all, so when I heard the name, when people were like, ‘You’re going to race against Evelyn Ashford,’ I was like, ‘Who is Evelyn Ashford?'” she said. “I just remember not being able to sleep that whole night. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m about to race somebody that was in the Olympics.'”

It was Lewis Gainey, Georgia’s men’s track coach at the time, who gave her the encouraging words that she remembers. “Coach Gainey was like, ‘Gwen, when that gun goes off, you just run like hell.'”

And that’s what Torrence did, beating Ashford and everyone else in the 60-meter dash for her first really big, eye-opening victory.

“I just knew then that was something special,” she said.

When Petros Kyprianou was promoted to Georgia’s head track and field coach in 2016, he knew he wanted to honor two Bulldog legends, Gwen Torrence and Herschel Walker, in some way. Ever since, the women’s 200 and men’s 100 during the Spec Towns Invitational have been named for the great sprinters.

“There’s no better way of honoring a person like that, who ran for the university and made us proud back in the day,” Kyprianou said.

Long before Kyprianou was coaching the Bulldogs, the Cyrpus native knew about Torrence and her remarkable career.

“I was in Greece watching her in the 1996 Olympics, and she was obviously very good,” he said. “I really, really liked her way of running the 200 meters, and her competitiveness.”

In her first Olympic Games, in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, Torrence placed fifth in the 100 and sixth in the 200. At the 1991 World Championships, in Tokyo, she placed second in both events.

Her greatest Olympic moment came at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where she won gold in the 200, won gold in the 4×100 relay and took second in the 4×400 relay. For someone that grew up in the East Lake Meadows public-housing project in Atlanta, for someone that didn’t really take track too seriously for many years, for someone that skipped going to the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials because she didn’t think she was good enough to make the team, to be standing alone on that podium after winning the 200 was an “overwhelming” moment, she said.

“It’s so overwhelming because you’ve seen that anthem played for people, you’ve seen it played for teams, and it’s not the same when it’s just for you, and all eyes are on you,” she said. “It goes through your mind all the hard work you’ve done, all the sacrifices you’ve made, all the people that have helped you along the way to get there. All the people you’ve made proud, where you come from.

“Me, with my background, this little Black girl from the projects, in this stadium, on this platform, this ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ is being played just for me. All those emotions, it’s just so overwhelming. You did something that all these thousands of people came here to do, but you did it.”

In 1993, at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Torrence placed third in the 100 and second in the 200. She got back atop the podium in 1995, winning the 100 at the World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

At the 1996 Olympics in her hometown of Atlanta, Torrence won the bronze in the 100 and a gold in the 4×100 relay. A few years later, after having seen the world through her outstanding track career, she was where she’d wanted to be. This extraordinary woman that “just so happened to have been in the Olympics,” was working in a salon close to home.

(Article by John Frierson, Staff Writer)

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