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.