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 Göteborg, 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!"