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Gwen Torrence had the dogs literally yapping at her heels during last Friday night's Panasonic Millrose Games in New York. Beneath one end of the stands at Madison Square Garden, not far from the starting line for the women's 55-meter dash, were cages and cages of canines waiting to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which would begin three days later. Frankly, the dogs had a lousy view, and they were complaining loudly.
And who could blame them? Torrence, the hottest sprinter this side of Ben Johnson, was about to put her 33-race, two-year indoor dash winning streak on the line against Evelyn Ash-ford, who holds the world best (6.54), and other top rivals. Not only that, Torrence all but expected to lose.
Which is typical. Torrence won NCAA titles for Georgia last year at 55, 100 and 200 meters, yet she lacks both a powerful build—"I'm always the puniest sprinter in the crowd," she says, referring to her 5'7", 123-pound frame—and the brash confidence common to sprinters. In 1984, for example, just 19 years old, she was too scared to show up for the U.S. Olympic Trials, even though she had qualified in the 100 meters. As her coach, Lewis Gainey, puts it, "She felt she didn't belong there."
This has been a problem for some time. As a Decatur, Ga., 10th-grader, she had to be coaxed into trying a 220-yard dash by a phys-ed teacher. Wearing low-heeled black leather pumps, she unofficially shattered the state record—yet even then Torrence was reluctant to join the track team. She did. finally, but continued to train in her street shoes because "I felt [spikes] were too hot for my skinny little legs."
Her development since then has been doubly impressive. On the track, she won the 100- and 200-meter titles at the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, last July and finished fifth in the 200 at the World Championships in Rome last September. Off the track, having entered Georgia in 1983 as a student in the controversial Developmental Studies Program—the focus of the Jan Kemp case (SI, Feb. 24, 1986)—Torrence is now a dean's list student two quarters short of a degree in early childhood education. She spent much of last season student-teaching handicapped youngsters, a field in which she plans to make her career. Torrence says she draws inspiration from her 39-year-old brother, Charles, who was paralyzed from the waist down while playing street football 15 years ago.
In the first qualifying heat of the women's 55 on Friday night, Torrence extended her victory streak to 33 races with a 6.71 clocking. The 30-year-old Ashford, looking strong in her comeback from an injury-plagued year, won the second heat in 6.74. "She looked real good," Torrence would say later. "I was a little worried about that."
Torrence tried to block out the public-address announcer's lengthy recital of her accomplishments as she prepared for the finals. "If I listen to that stuff about the winning streak, it gets to me," she said. "I can tell when I line up. It makes my arms all shaky."
This time when she lined up, her arms were stock-still, and she and Ashford broke from the blocks even. Torrence edged ahead at 10 meters and then steadily pulled away. "She scorched the last 20," said an approving Gainey later.
Torrence broke the tape in 6.64, with Ashford second in 6.71. Both vanished under the stands for an instant, then Torrence came bounding back up the track pumping her arms in delight, her face a picture of unabashed joy. She had won her third straight Millrose title and her 34th consecutive race, and had surprised even herself. "I didn't think I was prepared," she said. "T was running a little bit scared."
Antonio McKay made his mark on the men's 400 field with muscle. He and Michael Franks engaged in such fierce elbowing in the 2� race that McKay, the world indoor champion in the 400, had to throw his arms up to hold his balance in Turn 2. "When you have fast guys in a race like this, you're going to get some bumping," McKay said later. "All of them want to get to the front."