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When Gwen was seven, her elder brother Charles was paralyzed from the waist down in a pickup football game, and when she was eight, her father died of a stroke. Dorothy supported the family by working as a nanny and housekeeper. And Willie took care of Gwen around the housing project where they lived.
Now a warehouse supervisor in Decatur, Willie was the first in a long line of guardian angels—friends, coaches, academic advisers, admirers—who have tried to save Torrence from her wild willfulness. "If there was something Gwen didn't want to do in school," says Dorothy, "she would run home, and Willie would take her back. When she'd get into fights with other girls, Willie would come rescue her."
Gwen says she lucked out by being the youngest child. Not only did she have Willie to watch over her but also, unlike her brothers and sisters, she left the project while still young. As a result she attended Columbia High School in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta, where she met her second guardian angel, phys ed teacher Ray Bonner.
"The first time I saw Gwen run, a football player by the name of Fred Lane [who was to become a wide receiver at Georgia] lit out after her on the track," recalls Bonner. "Fred couldn't catch her. And he was fast."
Bonner had convinced Torrence to run, but she refused to put on athletic shorts or shoes. "She was ashamed of her little skinny legs," says Bonner. And so a legend was made: during an outdoor phys ed class Torrence unofficially broke the state girls' prep record in the 220 while wearing patent leather pumps. After that, says Bonner, "I told her that God gave her a gift, and if she didn't use it, he was going to be very upset."
Torrence agreed to join the high school track team, but she preferred practicing alone. "I used to pick up Gwen in the evening," says Bonner, "and go to the track after everyone else had left."
Bonner's method worked. "From then on," he says, "it was the Gwen Torrence show." In more ways than one. "Before every race in high school Gwen would put on makeup, make sure her hair was right. Then she would stand behind her blocks and take an extra long time to get in them, so everybody would be waiting on her." And she was as slow getting out of the blocks as she was getting in them. "I used to worry about her start," says Bonner, "but then I saw she was always ahead at the end."
Torrence, a high school All-America and three-time state champion, won both the 100- and 200-meter titles at the TAC Junior Olympics after her senior year and was recruited by universities all over the country. "But she didn't care," says Bonner. "She said she wanted to be a hair stylist, to work at Rich's or Macy's department store."
Bonner wouldn't let her turn down a scholarship, though. He told her: "You're a black female. You need that diploma." Grudgingly, she went to the University of Georgia, where she was enrolled in the developmental studies program—the same remedial program that gained notoriety for its coddling of jocks when English teacher Jan Kemp sued the university in 1983. Torrence, like all students in the program, had four quarters in which to move out of developmental studies and join the university mainstream.
"I had never written a paper," she says. "I thought I'd never get out of there." She did, though, in 1985, and a year later she made the dean's list.