Considered one of the world’s fastest women, track star and Decatur native Gwen Torrence spent the first few days of her life in an incubator, a time her mother described as “the only slow part of Gwen’s life.” The youngest of five children, Torrence was born on June 12, 1965, with her umbilical cord around her neck. She suffered no ill effects from her precarious start in life and went on to become one of the most decorated runners in history.
Torrence’s running ability first attracted attention when she was a student at Columbia High School in DeKalb County. Her physical education teacher, Ray Bonner, noticed her speed and decided to time Torrence in the 220-yard dash; she broke the state record wearing street clothes and low-heeled shoes. Bonner coaxed Torrence into joining the track team. At first Torrence was too shy to practice with the team. She won three consecutive state 100- and 200-meter dash championships, earning All-American honors her senior year, 1982-83. That summer she also won two gold medals at the Junior Olympics.
The University of Georgia (UGA) offered Torrence a full scholarship, which she initially refused. Since her grades were relatively low and she planned to become a hairstylist, Torrence saw no need to attend college. Once again Bonner intervened, convincing Torrence a college degree was beneficial no matter what she planned to do. Torrence accepted the university’s offer, becoming the first in her family to attend college.
During her years at UGA, Torrence earned All-American honors twelve times and won four NCAA championship titles. During her freshman season (1983-84) she received an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trials, but she declined because she felt that she was too young. Torrence improved every year she was at the university, winning at the 1986 Millrose Games, held at Madison Square Garden in New York, and the 1987 World University Games, held in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. She also proved herself in the classroom, graduating in 1987 with a degree in early childhood education.
At the 1988 Millrose Games, again held at Madison Square Garden, Torrence won her thirty-third consecutive race and became the woman to beat during the Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Florence Griffith-Joyner, however, shocked the world by beating Torrence and setting new world records for both the 100- and 200-meter dash. After the Seoul Olympics, Torrence took some time to enjoy family life with her husband, Manley Waller, a fellow UGA sprinter, and their son, Manley Waller III.
With her husband’s support, Torrence soon set her sights on the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. She lost the 100-meter to Gail Devers but won a gold medal in the 200-meter. She also won a gold medal for her participation in the 400-meter relay team and a silver medal for running on the 1,600-meter relay team. Torrence continued to compete, winning the gold for the 100-meter at the World Championship Games in Gothenberg, Sweden. She also competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where she again won the gold for the 400-meter relay and bronze for the 100-meter dash. Overall, Torrence is considered one of the finest female sprinters in the world. She was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 and the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2002.