Devers, Gail 1966–
Gail Devers 1966–
Sprinter and hurdler
While Gail Devers achieved fame as the fastest combination female sprinter and hurdler in history, she is perhaps best known for having overcome a serious illness that almost rendered her permanently disabled. After suffering for nearly two years from Graves’ disease, a dangerous thyroid condition, Devers made a dramatic return to competition and rapidly established herself as one of the leading female track and field performers in the world. Though initially known primarily as a hurdler, she stunned audiences with her victory in the 100-meter sprint at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Devers has demonstrated a rare blend of power, speed, and intense concentration. “I never know where I am in a race,” Devers was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “When I cross the finish line, I wait for someone to say, ’Gail Devers, you won’or ’Gail Devers, you lost” This ability to block out distractions is part of the formula that has resulted in so many of Devers’s triumphs.
A deeply religious woman, Devers believes that God played a vital role in defeating her illness and helping her realize her potential as an athlete. Her faith was established at an early age. The daughter of Reverend Larry
Devers, a Baptist pastor, Devers grew up in San Diego, California. Regarding her childhood, Devers told Sports Illustrated, “Wewere a Leave It to Beaver family.… We had picnics, rode bikes and played touch football together. We did Bible studies together.”She began winning gold medals during her adolescence; while attending Sweetwater High School in National City, her outstanding performance on the women’s track team helped the school win the San Diego sectional track and field team title. In 1984, at age 17, Devers won the 100-meter dash and 100-meter hurdles, and also took second in the long jump at the state high school track and field championships.
While attending UCLA, Devers’s development as a runner made a quantum leap under the coaching of Bob Kersee, who is the husband of Devers’s closest friend, the renowned athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Bob Kersee saw Devers’s immense potential and, much to the young athlete’s approval, put her on a grueling training regimen. Quoted in Track & Field News, Devers said, “I loved doing six or seven events in a meet because I was the first to start and the last to finish and there was no time in between to just sit around.” Initially, she had planned to
Bom Yolanda Gail Oevers, November 19, 1966, in Seattle, WA; daughter of Larry (a minister) and Alabe Devers (a teacher’s aide); married Ron Roberts, 1988 (divorced, 1991). Education: University of California al Los Angeles, B.A., 1988.
Fastest female combination sprinter and hurdler in history. Overcame serious illness to become one of the top track and field performers of her era. Won 100 meter dash and 100-meter hurdles, and placed second in long jump in California high school State championships, 1984; earned berth on U.S. Olympic team, 1988; set American record and earned silver medal in 100-meter hurdles. World Track & Field Championships, 1991; won gold medal (100-meter dash) at Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, 1992; ran world’s fastest time in 100-meter hurdles, 1992 and 1993; won gold medal (60-meter dash) at World Indoor Track & Field Championships, 1993; won gold medals (100 meter dash, 100-meter hurdles) at World Track & Field Championships, 1993; set American indoor record in 50-meter dash and world’s record in 60-meter dash, 1993; won 21 of 23 races in hurdles and sprints, 1993; ran world’s fastest time in 100-meter dash, 1993.
Selected awards: U.S. Women’s Athlete of the Year, Track & Field News, 1993; runner-up, World Women’s Athlete of the Year, Track & Field News, 1993.
Addresses: c/o U.S. Olympic Committee, 1750 East Boulder St., Colorado Springs, CO 80909.
concentrate on her sprints and not even pursue hurdling while in college, due to her small size. Nevertheless, under Kersee’s guidance, she stuck with the event and reaped tremendous success; by 1988 Devers had become one of the top female hurdlers in the U.S. That year she set a national record of 12.61 seconds in 100-meter hurdles, and also qualified to compete for the U.S. team in the event at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
However, just as Devers appeared to be approaching her peak as an athlete, she began suffering from a variety of physical problems. After qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, she found herself plagued by frequent muscle pulls and tired legs, making it difficult for her to complete simple workouts. Devers’s problems took their toll at Seoul, where she produced her slowest time in the 100-meter hurdles since her high school days and failed to qualify for the finals. Soon after, she suffered from impaired hearing, memory loss, migraine headaches, and involuntary shakes and convulsions. Her hair began falling out and, by January 1989, Devers had lost nearly 23 pounds, her frame becoming so slight that she had to wear children’s clothing.
Over the next two and a half years, Devers visited more than a dozen physicians. Several doctors told her that she was simply training too hard, while others thought she had diabetes. Meanwhile, Devers’s condition worsened, her list of symptoms expanding to include vision loss and nearly perpetual menstrual bleeding. At one point, she seriously considered ending her track career. “I felt like a washed-up athlete, and I began to doubt I could ever again compete at my former level,” she explained in Family Circle. But Kersee convinced her to stay with it.
Following an almost two-year layoff, Devers tested her condition in a minor track meet in 1990, but performed poorly. Then in the fall of that same year, a chance meeting with a team physician at UCLA finally led to solving the mystery. The physician noticed that Devers’s eyes were bulging and that she had a goiter on her throat, both of which might reflect a thyroid condition. Subsequent tests revealed that Devers was afflicted with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder resulting from an overactive thyroid gland. She was told that her condition had progressed almost to a cancerous state, perhaps as little as weeks away from malignancy.
Because the beta-blocker medication for the disease was prohibited by the Olympic Committee as an illegal substance for athletes, Devers elected to receive radiation treatment. Several weeks of radiation targeted against the diseased part of her thyroid gland resulted in a dramatic improvement in her symptoms, prompting her to think that she was cured. However, new problems erupted in early 1991, among them severely painful blood blisters on the soles of her feet and between her toes. Devers told Family Circle, “The pain was so excruciating that I sometimes crawled because it hurt too much to walk.”
Devers went to a podiatrist who wrongly diagnosed the condition as a severe case of athlete’s foot. Eventually, the pain of walking became so great that her parents had to carry her around her apartment. Devers began to believe that she might never walk again, a fear that seemed imminent when one doctor told her that he might have to amputate her feet. After consulting a second opinion though, it was determined that Devers’s problems with her extremities and skin were side effects from the radiation. The radiation had also completely destroyed her thyroid gland, forcing Devers to be placed on a lifetime regimen of daily medication.
One month after the radiation was stopped, Devers was more or less healthy again, except for a sensitivity to the sun and occasional skin-related problems due to her medication. Virtually as soon as she could walk again, she resumed her practice at UCLA. The first workout of her comeback was a slow walk around the track, which she had to do wearing only socks because shoes still hurt her feet. Progressing rapidly from walking to jogging to sprinting workouts, Devers regained her strength in time for a meet in March of 1991, where she qualified for the prestigious TAC (The Athletics Congress) Meet to be held in June. At the TAC Meet she won the 100-meter hurdles, achieving the fastest time by an American woman that year.
The following summer, Devers took second place in the 100-meter hurdles at the World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, and two weeks later, set a new American record in the event at a track meet in Berlin, Germany. While she achieved tremendous success in track that year, Devers’s three-year marriage to Ron Roberts fell apart. She explained in Family Circle that, because of her illness, “I had lost touch with myself. My only desire was to be alone…. I felt if I could just get back to running, I would find Gail again.”
As the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona approached, Kersee convinced Devers to put more effort into the 100-meter dash, since he had always felt that her greatest potential was as a sprinter. With her physical problems behind her, Devers trained harder than ever and made the 1992 Olympic team in both the 100-meter dash and the 100 meter hurdles. While at the Olympics, during the quarter finals of the 100 meters, she temporarily lost all feeling in her feet in the starting blocks. Despite fears that her illness was flaring up again, Devers shocked everyone by winning the gold medal in the 100-meter dash with the best time of her career, which nipped second-place finisher Julie Cuthbert of Jamaica by only .01 seconds.
Her surprise victory led to some suspicion about use of performance-enhancing drugs, but no evidence of such assistance was found and rumors were soon dispelled. However, the ecstasy of victory turned to agony five days later. Running too fast in the finals of the hurdles event, Devers overstrided and caught one of the barriers with her foot, tripped, and fell across the finish line. The fall dropped her to fifth place, ruining her chances of becoming the second woman in Olympic history to win gold medals in both the hurdles and the 100-meter dash. “I guess it just isn’t meant to be,” she said afterwards, displaying her fatalistic view of life.
Confirming her position as the fastest woman in the world, Devers dominated the indoor track season in 1993. She focused more on sprinting than hurdling at that time, and lost just one indoor dash in eight performances. Her achievement was especially impressive since she had paid little attention to indoor running prior to that year. She set an American record of 6.99 seconds in the 60-meter dash at the USA/Mobil Indoor Track and Field Championships in New Jersey in February, and in March she sped to a world-record time of 6.95 seconds while winning the event at the World Indoor Championships held in Toronto, Canada.
Strain from her grueling indoor season resulted in a hamstring injury early in her outdoor training in the spring of 1993. She bounced back quickly, however, under Kersee’s tutelage, and was in peak condition for the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships held in Stuttgart, Germany in August. Avoiding the mistake that had cost her a dual victory at the Olympics, Devers won titles in both the 100-meter hurdles and the 100-meter dash. Her victory over Merlene Ottey of Jamaica in the dash was so close that it took the judges three minutes of studying the photograph taken at the finish before they could confirm Devers as the winner. The head of the Jamaican team protested the decision, but Devers’s victory was upheld. Earning three major titles in 1993, Devers finished the year with a phenomenal 21 victories in 23 races. She also ran the fastest times in both the 100-meter dash and 100-meter hurdles that year.
Going from the verge of having her feet amputated to winning an Olympic gold medal in just eighteen months, Gail Devers’s return to running glory is widely regarded as the greatest comeback story in the history of track and field. Few athletes, male or female, have possessed her rare combination of great physical skill and steadfastness in the face of debilitating setbacks. She gives much of the credit to God’s intervention; in Family Circle Devers noted, “My family and friends gave me tremendous support, but faith in God and myself kept me going. I don’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone, but I’m a stronger, more determined person because of it. After conquering Graves’disease, I know there’s no hurdle I can’t get over.”
Essence, May 1993, p. 96.
Family Circle, May 18, 1993, pp. 21-3.
Jet, August 17, 1992, pp. 51-2.
New York Times, August 2, 1992, Section 8, pp. 1, 4; February 24, 1993, p. B14; February 27, 1993, pp. 29, 32; March 13, 1993, p. 32; August 17, 1993, pp. B9, B13.
Sporting News, August 17, 1992, p. 5.
Sports Illustrated, August 10, 1992, pp. 18-19; May 10, 1993, pp. 41-3.
Track & Field News, October 1992, pp. 52-3; November 1993, pp. 36-7, 48-9; February 1994, pp. 10-11, 14, 17.
American track and field athlete
Gail Devers will go down as one of the fastest female combination sprinters and hurdlers in history, as well as one of the greatest track and field athletes. While her awards and accomplishments, including setting several American and world records in various indoor and outdoor events, are impressive, they are only half the story. Devers's triumph over Graves' disease—a debilitating and potentially dangerous thyroid condition—early in her career is the stuff of legend. The disease and the treatments that she pursued made Devers so ill that she had to be carried around by her family. At one point, doctors almost amputated her feet because they were so swollen. Devers's professional comeback, which began
in 1991 after years of sedentary living with her condition, was extraordinary, and included gold medals in the 100-meter dash in both the 1992 and the 1996 Olympics.
A Born Competitor
Yolanda Gail Devers was born on November 19, 1966, in Seattle, Washington, although her family relocated to National City, California, a small town near San Diego. From an early age, Devers's brother, Parenthesis, would race Gail, always making fun of her when she lost. Devers decided that she did not want to lose anymore, and began training. She beat her brother in their next race. From that point, Devers steadily increased her competitive arena, moving from the neighborhood races against her brother to the races at Sweetwater High School.
Throughout school, Devers continued to improve, and her stellar performances helped the team win the San Diego sectional track and field team title. In 1984, her senior year at Sweetwater, Devers went to the state championships, where she won the 100-meter dash and 100-meter hurdles, and placed second in the long jump. All of these accomplishments attracted attention from major universities, who heavily courted Devers with offers of athletic scholarships. Devers chose the University of California at Los Angeles, where she trained under coach Bob Kersee, the future husband of fellow track star, Jackie Joyner-Kersee . Bob Kersee was the first coach who pushed Devers harder than she pushed herself, and his difficult training methods—which included entering Devers in six or seven track-and-field events in some meets—paid off. Devers advanced rapidly, even in events like the 100-meter hurdles, which she had always felt were out of her reach due to her small size.
A Mysterious Affliction
In 1988, Devers was in top form. She set a national record of 12.61 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles and qualified for the American track-and-field team for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. While training for the Olympics, however, Devers began to experience a host of physical problems, including fatigue, muscle pulls, bouts of insomnia, fainting spells, migraine headaches, and various other ailments. Nevertheless, Devers pushed herself, and at the Olympics she had her worst competition performance since high school. She did not qualify for the finals, and many experts assumed that Devers had pushed herself too hard under Kersee.
Devers's symptoms worsened, and included memory and hair loss, skin discoloration, and near-constant menstruation. In 1990, after two years of suffering, doctors finally realized that Devers had Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder. Although she was miserable, Devers opted not to take the standard medication treatment for the disease, since this drug was on the list of mediations banned by the International Olympic Committee. Even as she was bed-ridden, Devers never gave up hope that she would someday return to the Olympics, and she did not want to take the chance of becoming ineligible for competition. Instead of medication, Devers opted for painful radiation therapy, which destroyed the cyst on her thyroid gland, but which also obliterated her thyroid gland itself in the process.
|1966||Born November 19 in Seattle, Washington|
|1984||Enrolls at University of California, Los Angeles, on a track scholarship, and begins training with Bob Kersee; Devers is the first female athlete from her high school to earn an athletic scholarship from a major university|
|1988||Graduates from University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Sociology|
|1988||Marries Ron Roberts, the captain of the UCLA men's track team|
|1988||While training for the 1988 Summer Olympics, Devers's health begins to deteriorate|
|1988||Competes at the 1988 Summer Olympics, finishing eighth in her qualifying heat for the 100-meter dash|
|1988||Becomes violently ill|
|1990||Diagnosed with Graves' disease; she opts to undergo radiation treatment as opposed to taking a medication that is on the banned medications list for the Olympics|
|1991||Two days before her feet are set to be amputated, doctors realize that Devers's radiation treatments are the cause of her dangerously swollen feet|
|1991||Begins her track and field comeback by walking around a track with socks on her feet, since her feet are still too tender to wear shoes|
|1991||Gets divorced from Ron Roberts|
|1992||Less than seventeen months after doctors almost amputate her feet, she wins the gold medal in the 100-meter dash in the 1992 Summer Olympics; she also leads the race for the 100-meter hurdles event, but trips over the last hurdle, falling to a fifth-place finish|
|1994||Misses most competitions this year, due to a hamstring injury and back problems that result from a car accident|
|1996||Wins gold medal in the 100-meter dash in the 1996 Summer Olympics|
|1996||Marries American Olympic gold medalist and triple jumper, Kenny Harrison|
|2000||Forced to drop out of the 100-meter hurdle race at the 2000 Summer Olympics, due to Achilles tendon and hamstring injuries|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1984||Won 100-meter dash and 100-meter hurdles, and places second in long jump in California high school state championships|
|1987||Gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1987 Pan-American Games|
|1988||Set an American record in the 100-meter hurdles|
|1988||NCAA champion in the 100-meter dash|
|1988||Member of U.S. Olympic Team|
|1992||Silver medal in 100-meter hurdles at the World Track & Field Championships|
|1992||Gold medal in 100-meter dash at 1992 Summer Olympics|
|1992-93||Ran world's fastest time in 100-meter hurdles|
|1993||Gold medal in 60-meter dash at the World Indoor Track & Field Championships|
|1993||Gold medals in 100-meter dash and 100-meter hurdles at World Track & Field Championships, the first woman to do this in international competition in 45 years|
|1993||Set American indoor record in 60-meter dash|
|1993||Won 21 of 23 races in hurdles and sprints|
|1993||Ran world's fastest time in 100-meter dash|
|1994||Named one of two top athletes in 1993 (along with fellow track and field star, Michael Johnson) by the U.S. Olympic Committee|
|1995||Won the 100-meter hurdles at the World Track & Field Championships|
|1996||Gold medal in 100-meter dash at the 1996 Summer Olympics, becoming only the second woman in history (the other is Wyomia Tyus) to win back-to-back Olympic golds in the 100-meter dash; also won a gold medal as part of the 4 × 100-meter relay at the 1996 Olympics|
|1997||Gold medal for the 4 × 100-meter relay at the World Track & Field Championships|
|1999||Gold medal and sets national record in 100-meter hurdles at the World Track & Field Championships|
|2000||Broke her own national record in 100-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic trials|
Her symptoms disappeared for a short while, and Devers thought she was cured. In 1991, however, Devers experienced new disturbing symptoms, including severe blood blisters on her feet, which doctors misdiagnosed as athlete's foot. Devers's feet swelled up to a dangerous size, and began oozing yellow fluid. Devers was in so much pain that she could not walk. At one point, the pain and swelling were so bad that doctors were ready to amputate both of her feet. Fortunately, Devers's doctors realized that the symptoms were the result of the athlete's radiation therapy. As soon as they stopped this treatment, her condition rapidly improved. As soon as she was able to walk, Devers began training again, starting with a single walk around the UCLA track—in socks, because her feet were still too tender to wear shoes. These were her first tentative steps in what is generally acknowledged as one of the most notable comebacks in sports history.
Back, and Better Than Ever
Now that her feet had been spared, Devers put them to good use. In March 1991, mere months after stopping the radiation treatment, Devers qualified for The Athletics Congress (TAC) meet, a prestigious event where she won the 100-meter hurdles. Devers's performance continued to improve, and in 1992, at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo, Devers won a silver medal in the 100-meter hurdles. Under the coaching of Kersee, who encouraged Devers to focus on her performance in the 100-meter dash, Devers qualified for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the 100-meter dash and in the 100-meter hurdles. During the qualifying races for the finals of the 100-meter dash, Devers temporarily lost feeling in her feet while she was waiting in the starting blocks.
She shook it out, however, and made it to the finals, which featured one of the closest finishes in Olympic history. Devers crossed the finish line at almost exactly the same time as her four competitors, which included fellow American, Gwen Torrence . Judges analyzed the photo finish, and Devers was declared the victor, despite accusations from other competitors that Devers might have been using performance-enhancing drugs—rumors that were quickly shown to be unfounded. Devers had successfully come back from her debilitating bout with Graves' disease to win an Olympic gold medal. She was not done, however. Several days later, Devers competed in the finals of the 100-meter hurdles, a race that she dominated from the beginning. Unfortunately, Devers's tremendous speed worked against her, and she came up too fast on the final hurdle, hitting it with her lead foot. Devers tripped and fell, stumbling across the finish line in fifth place.
Devers bounced back quickly from this latest setback, and in 1993, she set several indoor track records, including an American record of 6.99 seconds in the 60-meter dash. She also pulled a hamstring muscle, but was healed in time for the World Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where she won both the 100-meter dash and the 100-meter hurdles, something that she had been unable to do in Barcelona. Devers continued to have a strong year, and ultimately finished 1993 with twenty-one wins out of twenty-three races, plus three titles. For this reason, the United States Olympic Committee named Devers the U.S. Female Athlete of the Year.
In 1994, Devers's hamstring injury returned, and she was out of competition for most of the year. Over the next two years, Devers mainly concentrated on training for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, although she did win the 100-meter hurdles at the 1995 World Track and Field Championships. At the Olympics, Devers once again qualified for both the 100-meter dash and the 100-meter hurdles. As in the 1992 Olympics, the finals race was a photo finish, and Devers was once again declared the winner—becoming only the second woman to win consecutive 100-meter titles in the Olympics. At the same time, Devers's fiancee, American triple-jumper Kenny Harrison, also won the gold medal in his event.
Devers also made it to the finals in the 100-meter hurdles. Determined not to make the same mistake she made at the 1992 Olympics, Devers nevertheless came too slow out of the blocks and did not turn in a good performance, finishing fourth. This time around, however, Devers did take home a second gold medal—as part of American women's 4 × 100-meter relay team. Four years later, Devers stunned the track and field world by qualifying for her fourth Olympics, in Sydney, Australia in both the 100-meter hurdles and the 4 × 100 meter relay. Unfortunately, Devers injured a hamstring muscle before the Olympics, and was forced to drop out of the competition. Devers continues to compete, and 2002 featured one of her best seasons yet. After she retires, Devers plans to devote her endless energy and determination to community outreach projects, something that she already does on a part-time basis through her company, Gail Force, Inc.
Dash to Glory
Ninety-five meters into the [1992 Summer] Olympic women's 100-meter dash, the crowd had quit cheering. The sprinters crossed the finish line to exhalations of disbelief, to stunned muttering. The question of who was the fastest woman in the world had just been decided. But no one could tell who she was. She herself didn't know. Here, in a heavenly grove atop Barcelona's Montjuic, five sprinters had expected to reach a lonely pinnacle. Instead, they found themselves on a plateau crowded with virtual equals. …
Five meters from the finish, Devers was passing [Russian Irina] Privalova, [Jamaican Juliet] Cuthbert was catching Devers, [Jamaican Merlene] Ottey was catching Cuthbert, and [American Gwen] Torrence was catching Ottey. The five seemed to merge at the line. Even the blurry, warped finish photo on the scoreboard, freezing the sprinters in the throes of their final efforts, was of no immediate help. But wait. If it's a sentimental favorite you want, look again at Devers, leaning there in lane 2, and listen to what she has endured over the last Olympiad.
Source: Moore, Kenny. Sports Illustrated (August 10, 1992): 12.
Most people acknowledge Devers's extraordinary comeback from Graves' disease, which sports commentators often discuss even more than her three Olympic gold medals. Since 1991 when she returned to competition, however, Devers has consistently proven that, while her illness and subsequent comeback is compelling and even miraculous, it is only a small testament to her greatness as a sports figure. Devers has not only returned to her pre-disease state of athletic fitness, she has surpassed it, again and again, sometimes breaking her own records in the process. Paradoxically, she just keeps on improving as she gets older. Now in her mid-thirties, the time when many professional track-and-field athletes start to consider retirement, Devers continues to compete and is stronger than ever. How long will Devers remain competitive? If she continues to push her body to its limits, using the same mind-over-matter willpower that helped her battle Graves' disease, there's no telling how long she may compete. One thing's for certain, though: Devers is already a legend. And until the day arrives when she launches out of the starting blocks for the last time, Devers's competitors will know not to make the mistake of underestimating her abilities or determination.
Address: Gail Devers, Elite International Sports and Management, 1034 Brentwood Blvd., Suite 1530, Saint Louis, MO 63117-1215.
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Sketch by Ryan D. Poquette
African American athlete Gail Devers (born 1966) stunned the world of track and field by bouncing back from a severe illness to win the gold medal in the 100–meter sprint at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. She had previously set records in the 100–meter hurdles, but placed fifth in the event at the 1992 games. Since her return to the sport, she has excelled in both her signature events, winning a second gold medal in the 100–meter dash at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and participating in the gold medal–winning 4x100–meter relay team as well. She is a ten–time World Champion in the 100–meter hurdles.
Yolanda Gail Devers was born on November 19, 1966, in Seattle, Washington, to Larry Devers, a Baptist minister, and Adele Devers, a teacher's aide. The family later moved to National City, California, near San Diego. Devers first became interested in running as a child, spurred on by the taunts of her brother, Parenthesis. "Since I was a young girl, I've always been a runner," Devers recalled on the Gail Devers Website. "In fact, my brother Parenthesis (P.D.) used to race me and then tease me when I lost. Well one day, I decided I was not going to lose anymore. So I started practicing—and it paid off. I beat P.D. the next time we raced, and he never raced me again. From then on, running was all that mattered. I had found my stride." She joined the track team at Sweetwater High School, from which she graduated in 1984. Although she began her high school track career as a middle–distance runner, she eventually established herself as a sprinter and hurdler, one year winning the 100–meter dash and 100–meter hurdles, as well as taking second place in the long jump, at the state championships.
Due to her performance on the track, Devers had her pick of colleges and attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in sociology and trained under Bob Kersee, a legendary presence in United States track and field and the husband of Devers' close friend, the sprinter Jackie Joyner–Kersee. Kersee immediately pegged Devers as a future Olympic champion and began grooming her for the games. By her senior year in 1988, Devers was ranked one of the top female hurdlers in the country. That year, she set a national record in the 100–meter hurdles with a time of 12.61 seconds and qualified to compete for a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team.
Mysterious Illness Surfaced
Devers made the Olympic team, keeping Kersee as her personal coach, but during her training she experienced frequent muscle pulls and tired legs. She performed poorly at the Olympics, held that year in Seoul, Korea, logging her slowest time in the 100–meter hurdles since her high school career and failing to qualify for the finals. Her condition worsened after the games, when she began to suffer from impaired hearing, memory loss, migraine headaches, hair loss, convulsions, fatigue, and extreme weight loss. Devers visited a series of doctors, none of whom could offer a proper diagnosis. She attempted to compete again in 1990 at a minor track meet, but performed poorly. That same year, a UCLA team physician she encountered by chance noted that Devers' eyes were bulging and she had a goiter on her throat, both symptoms of a thyroid condition. Tests confirmed that Devers had Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder resulting from an overactive thyroid gland, and that the growth on the gland would have soon become cancerous. Devers underwent radiation treatment to destroy the growth, but the treatment also destroyed her thyroid gland. She had to start taking a synthetic thyroid medication, something she would most likely be forced to do for the rest of her life.
The radiation treatment alleviated many of Devers' symptoms and she resumed her training with Kersee. Complications began to surface in 1991, however, including the formation of blood blisters on the soles of her feet and between her toes. Walking became so painful that Devers often had to crawl or be carried, and one doctor discussed amputating her feet. A second opinion revealed that the blisters were a side effect of the radiation, however, and within one month of halting radiation therapy, Devers was on the road to recovery. She eased back into training with Kersee, riding a stationary bicycle and walking around the track in her socks until shoes no longer hurt her feet. Soon, she resumed her full–fledged workouts and in March 1991 she qualified for a June TAC (The Athletics Congress) meet, where she won the 100–meter hurdles, setting the women's record for the year in that event. "Deep down, I was scared to death that my life as an athlete was over," Devers wrote on her web site. "But I wasn't going to give up—the word 'quit' has never been a part of my vocabulary." That same year, she divorced runner Ron Roberts, whom she had married in 1988.
Won Olympic Gold
The following summer, Devers placed second in the 100–meter hurdles at the World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, set a new U.S. record in the event at a meet in Berlin, Germany, and qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, in both the 100–meter dash and the 100–meter hurdles. Devers stunned spectators when she won the 100–meter dash, beating second–place finisher Julie Cuthbert of Jamaica by .01 seconds and logging her personal best time in the event. Competitors raised speculation that Devers' miraculous comeback was aided by the use of performance–enhancing drugs, but the suspicions were never confirmed. Devers' performance in the 100–meter hurdles was less spectacular. After tripping over a hurdle, she fell across the finish line and placed fifth in the event, dashing her hopes of becoming the second woman in history to win gold medals in both the 100–meter dash and the 100–meter hurdles. "It just wasn't meant to be," she told Sports Illustrated in a 1993 interview.
Devers achieved her dream of a double victory the following year at the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. Devers and Jamaica's Merelene Ottey finished so close in the 100–meter dash that judges spent three minutes studying the photograph taken at the finish line to determine the winner. The Jamaican team protested the decision, but Devers, who set records in both the 100–meter dash and 100–meter hurdles that year, prevailed. She anchored the silver medal–winning 4x100–meter relay team at the championships as well.
Devers won the 100–meter dash at the World Outdoor Championships again in 1994 and the following year she won the 100–meter hurdles at both the Outdoor Championships and the World Championships. In 1996, she became the second woman in Olympic history to win the 100–meter dash in two consecutive games, and she brought home a second gold medal for her performance in the 4x100 relay. She competed in the 100–meter hurdles as well, but placed fourth.
Bowed Out in Sydney
Aside from a season off in 1998, Devers continued to remain at the top of her game through the 1990s, winning several outdoor championships in the 100–meter dash, 100–meter hurdles, and 4x100 relay, and several indoor championships in the 60–meter dash and 60–meter hurdles. Devers injured her right Achilles tendon and left hamstring while training for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, but won the 100–meter hurdles at the Olympic trials, beating her own American record in the event. Ultimately, her injuries forced her to pull out during the Olympic 100–meter hurdles semi–finals, however. In a 2004 interview in Science of Mind magazine, Devers said she does not measure success by the number of medals she wins. "To me success does not mean that you have to be number one or have the most money or own the company, it means that you have to give your all," she said. "I tell people that at the end of every task, ask yourself a question, a very basic one: 'Did you do all that you can do?' And if the answer is 'yes,' you're successful and don't let anybody tell you anything different."
Devers continued to train and compete, although she dismissed Kersee as her coach in 2001, making her one of the few major U.S. runners to work without a personal coach. "It's just me, a seven–pound Pomeranian, and God on the track," Devers, who begins her practices by racing her dog, is quoted as saying on the USA Track & Field web site. She won the 60–meter hurdles at both the USA and World Indoor Track & Field Championships in 2003. In 2004, she became the first athlete to win both the 60–meter dash and the 60–meter hurdles at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships, posting times of 7.81 seconds in the hurdles and 7.08 in the sprint, which she won in a photo finish. She won a gold medal in the 60–meter dash and a silver in the 60–meter hurdles at the World Indoor Championships that same year. Devers qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, but failed to make the finals in the 100–meter dash. Her string of bad luck in the 100– meter hurdles continued as well; she was eliminated after aggravating a sprained calf.
Off the track, Devers established the Gail Devers Foundation in 1999 to fund education, health, and community development projects. "When I look at what I've accomplished during my life thus far, I realize I've been truly blessed," Devers wrote on her web site. "Now I want to share my good fortune by passing it on and helping others. Then, I'll consider myself a true champion."
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 7, Gale Research, 1994.
Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Ebony, March, 1997.
Science of Mind, August, 2004.
Sports Illustrated, May 10, 1993.
Gail Devers Official Website,http://www.gaildevers.com (December 20, 2004).
"Gail Devers," USA Track & Field,http://usatf.org (December 21, 2004).