Gail Devers’s first Olympic Gold medal could not have been won in more dramatic circumstances. She dipped for the line in what is believed to be the closest 100m final.
Devers won the race in 10.82 seconds, which was less than one-tenth of a second faster than the four closest competitors. But it wasn’t just Devers’ winning time that made Devers’ victory so special. It was also the journey she took to get there.
Devers suffered several health problems in the years before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. These “gamuts of symptoms” brought Devers close to retiring, even before her athletics career began.
Devers was plagued by health problems in her 20s. She suffered from weight loss, hair loss, and insomnia.
“I looked like an absolute monster… Sport’s 54-year old tells Sport that she couldn’t bear the way she looked.
“I covered up my mirrors, and I stopped looking at myself. People would always ask me why I was going out. I decided to stop going out. I didn’t have any answers.”
Devers claims that she ran as slow as she did in high school during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. She failed to make it past the semifinals in the 100m hurdles, which was her favorite event.
Some doctors blamed her overtraining for her condition. She returned home to find that her weight had dropped to 79 lbs, 40 fewer than her normal running weight.
Devers recalls that “I had given a resignation speech stating that I didn’t want to take up my coach’s time because I’m out there competing, trying to compete, and I’m pulling my hamstrings by running,” Devers said.
“There was a problem. (But) he wouldn’t let me resign. Thank goodness. He said, ‘We’ll figure it out.
Devers was diagnosed with Graves’ disease after many years of seeing health professionals across the United States. This is an autoimmune disorder that causes overactive thyroid glands.
She recalls the moment she was diagnosed. “Finally, someone had an answer for me.”
Devers, who was diagnosed with Graves disease 30 years ago, wants to bring awareness about the condition and the symptoms, especially since July is Graves disease Awareness Month.
She continues to take medication every day and recently discovered that her eye problems — bulging, pain, and sensitivity to light — can be linked to thyroid eye disease. This condition is related to Graves’ but requires separate treatment.
Devers says, “If 10 million people could have Graves’ disease, then my job is to ensure that 10 million of them — they’re under doctor’s care.”
Devers was diagnosed in 1990 and received radiation treatment. This caused painful blisters on her feet. Doctors were close to amputating Devers’ feet.
Devers believes that despite all the difficulties of Graves’, her health problems propelled her to new heights when she was able to return to athletics.
She says, “I always tell people I would ask for my Graves disease again if I had my whole life to live,”
“I believe that I am stronger for having to go through what happened to me… Everyone has faced challenges. Sometimes we feel like walls are closing in on our lives and there is no escape.
“What are you going to do?” Remember the strength and resilience you have when you are on the line.”
Devers won the 100m in 1992. She went on to win gold in the 100m and 4x100m relay at Atlanta 1996 Games. This made her one of three women who successfully defended the 100m title at the Olympics.
Devers failed to win an Olympic medal in 100m hurdles despite winning three world championship titles.
She was poised for a comfortable win in 1992. However, Devers stumbled on the last hurdle and ended up finishing fifth. Statisticians later determined that Devers would have broken her world record if she hadn’t stumbled over the last hurdle.
In Atlanta, four years later, she was fourth in the final. She pulled up in the semifinal in 2000 with a torn left hamstring and in 2004 it was a calf injury that thwarted her progress.
Her 100m gold medal in 1996, when Devers beat Merlene Ottey of Jamaica after they had the same finish times, makes her the last American woman who has won the Olympic 100m title.
Devers, who is speaking at the Tokyo Olympics later this month, says that she hopes an American athlete can end the 25-year-old wait for a female 100m gold. However, she also admitted to being a fan of British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, the 200m world champion.
Devers’s career was shaped by her resilience and determination to overcome her health challenges. She is well-equipped to offer advice to Olympians approaching the Games after a year of uncertainty and confusion from the pandemic.
Devers says, “You have challenges, you have stress, and you have self-doubts.” “Whether you’re swimming or diving, whatever your event, you need to be prepared to give your best so you don’t leave with any questions.”
Devers, who competed until the age of 40, is still active and just completed her first half-marathon. She is still committed to public awareness about Graves’ disease.
She says, “I have been working with people for 30 years.” “I want to help others get to the finish line faster than I did.”