In From the Storm : Hurdler Gail Devers Weathers Ordeal of Illness, Radiation Treatments and Regains the Summit


There was a time not long ago when Gail Devers was afraid to look into a mirror.

Sometimes this grotesquely bloated thing appeared in the glass, an unrecognizable blob. Other times she saw a hollow, gaunt face, a strange bony apparition. Another image had scaly, peeling skin. She called that one “Alligator Woman.”

Devers was afraid that if she looked in a mirror, these images would appear. She was ashamed that these reflections were her.


She never told anyone why her body was undergoing these changes. Devers, the U.S. record-holder in the 100-meter hurdles, stayed in her house. She didn’t want others to look at her, afraid that she might see herself in the mirrors of their eyes.

How bleak a life is it when your appearance disgusts you, your body betrays you, your skin is so sensitive that you can’t bear to be touched and you know something is going on, but you have no earthly idea what it is?

How desperate do you get when you turn to physicians for help and they get everything wrong? You believe them, you want them to know, but sometimes they don’t have the answer.

You take your bleeding and grossly swollen feet to a podiatrist and he says you have athlete’s foot. Later, other doctors say that if another two days had passed without treatment, they would have amputated your feet.

You tell doctors that you have migraines that leave you blinded and they say you are overtired. Your hair falls out in clumps.

Finally, your condition is diagnosed.

You are told you must undergo powerful radiation treatments. You do, but the painful process burns away not only the offending cyst, but also its host gland. The radiation tears a path through your body, making you more sick than when you began and leaving your skin badly burned.

That is what Devers thinks about now, as she looks in the mirror without fear. The reflection is of a woman who has been courageous despite days when she was reduced to crawling on her knees. That new woman likes what she sees in the mirror. She laughs at the pain and the memory makes her stronger.

She will remember in Barcelona, at the Olympics, on the starting line, where she dared to dream she could be.


Devers has always been a careful, thoughtful athlete. Long before she set the U.S. record in the 100-meter hurdles, Devers was meticulously plotting the course to reach her dreams.

She always figured a key element would be hard work. It was no coincidence, then, when Devers graduated from Sweetwater High in National City, Calif., that she hooked up with one of the most demanding U.S. track and field coaches, Bob Kersee.

Devers was driven in college by Kersee, who recruited her to compete at UCLA. Eschewing specialization, Devers has tried nearly every track event and a few in the field.

It was common for her to compete in six or seven events at collegiate meets. In 1988, Devers’ senior year, she was Pacific 10 Conference champion in three events. In 1987, she won four events at the conference meet and ran on two winning relays.

“I can’t remember Gail ever saying ‘no’ to work,” said Kersee, who still coaches Devers. “The only time she distinctly told me she was not going to do an event was the 400-meter hurdles.”

Defiance is not one of Devers’ characteristics. In fact, Kersee said he had to cultivate that side of her.

“Gail is a tough athlete, but she’s not a selfish athlete,” he said. “That means she’s too nice at times. She’s low-key and sweet. I’ve had to learn how to push her buttons before a meet. In her freshman year I told her before a certain hurdle race that I thought she’d choke. She turned around and said, ‘Hey, I might mess up, but I never choke.’ I found that button.”

Devers progressed steadily and made the 1988 Olympic team in the 100-meter hurdles. But she didn’t make it to the final at Seoul and her time was her slowest since high school. Upon examination, her performance was not puzzling. In an Olympic year--a time world-class athletes creep around on tippy-toes--Devers overdosed on stress.

Here was Devers’ summer schedule:

May--Pac 10 and NCAA meet.

June--Get married (she has since divorced) and buy a house.

July--U.S. Olympic trials.

September--Olympic Games.

Slowly, imperceptibly, Devers began to get sick. With the blur of her life to obscure the individual symptoms, no one took notice. Then it seemed that Devers had fallen asleep, and when she awoke, she was in the middle of a medical nightmare.

Or as Kersee put it: “In 1988, the bottom dropped out.”

Kersee is merciless toward athletes he believes to be carrying extra weight, making them the butt of jokes until the pounds are shed. But what happened to Devers was so bizarre that she was spared Kersee’s cracks.

Devers’ weight began to fluctuate dramatically. One month the 5-foot-3 Devers was her usual 115 pounds. The next month she might weigh 135 pounds. At other times she weighed less than 95 pounds.

“People in the sport had no idea what was happening,” she said. “Some people thought I was on drugs. Others thought I was anorexic.”

Devers didn’t know what was happening, but she was determined that whatever it was, it was going to be her business and no one else’s.

“I can’t stand to be a burden to anyone,” she said. “If I had a problem, I wanted to solve it myself.”

By 1989, Devers’ college eligibility was gone. She continued in school and took a job as an insurance underwriter. Her training was still hampered by fragile, unpredictable health.

“The first thing I noticed was that she was breaking down (physically),” said Bob Forster, Devers’ physical therapist. “This was in ‘89, and she was really pushing herself. The problem was her hamstrings and calves couldn’t keep up. That’s a typical problem for a sprinter, but with Gail, it just wouldn’t get better.”

Devers finally broke her code of pride and sought help. Her health insurance offered an HMO that didn’t assign a personal physician. Thus, she trooped into clinics, seeing a different doctor each time.

One doctor said she had a cold. Another said she was overtired. They saw nothing outwardly wrong and tests revealed little. More than one doctor suggested to Devers that her problems were in her head.

“I actually thought I was going crazy, to tell you the truth,” she said.

The first time Graves’ disease was mentioned was when Forster saw Devers at the 1990 Goodwill Games. The bulge of her eyes was more pronounced and she had a goiter, a sign of an enlarged thyroid.

The thyroid is a small gland in the neck that secretes a hormone that regulates how fast a body burns sugar and produces energy, among other things. With Graves’ disease, the thyroid over-produces this hormone.

“I saw Gail and I went to Bobby (Kersee),” Forster said. “I said, ‘Now it’s a medical emergency. Get her to a doctor.’ I knew how serious Graves’ disease can be.”

Soon, Devers would know, too.


The first approach Devers’ doctors took was to massively irradiate her thyroid. As she progressed in her treatments, she began a type of radiation therapy in which she would drink a clear, tasteless liquid.

The liquid made her nauseated. But if she threw up the liquid, she would lose the medicine, too. Devers learned to ignore her gag reflex, which, unlike most of her vital systems, was functioning superbly.

If nothing else, Devers had a sense of relief that the problem had been identified. Despite doubting doctors, she was right about being physically ill, but she didn’t want to be.

The big picture wasn’t pretty. Devers’ hair was coming out by the fistful. Her eyes were bulging. Psoriasis ravaged her skin. Those patches that weren’t scaly were bleeding.

Some weeks Devers slept for 12 or 14 hours a day. She couldn’t be awakened. More frequently she suffered insomnia. For months Devers worked and trained while getting four hours of sleep. This went on for more than a year.

“When I was down to the lowest level, it was bad,” Devers said. “My face was constantly peeling. My feet were huge. You know how little kids are going to always tell you the truth? Kids would stare at me and say, ‘Your eyes are about to pop out of your head!’

“That’s when I stopped looking in the mirror. I felt like a creature. It offended me . . . it affected me.”

Devers avoided everyone. She resumed training, after a fashion, in February of 1991. She tried to go out early in the morning when the UCLA track was deserted. Devers especially didn’t want anyone to see her swollen feet.

The radiation burned Devers’ extremities. Her feet were charred and looked as if she had held them to a campfire. She tried wearing men’s size-12 shoes, but the pain was too great. Doctors told her not to put anything on her feet, but Devers insisted she had to train.

So she wore five pairs of socks while she shuffled around the track. The bleeding and oozing meant she had to cut the socks off her feet at night. Their removal meant another layer of skin would be lost.

The radiation sometimes caused Devers to lose muscle control. Her training partners affectionately called her “shaky.” This, they were accustomed to.

But one day, Devers sat on the track, complaining of leg cramps. She blacked out and went into spasms. Kersee and runners Valerie Brisco and Jeanette Bolden carried Devers from the track to the student health center. An ambulance took her to the hospital.

“I will never forget that day,” Devers said.

Devers readily acknowledges that during the entire ordeal, she was inches from quitting. “All I wanted to do was to go into my house, close the door, and never come out again,” Devers said.

As an athlete accustomed to success, that was unbearable. On her good days, she couldn’t finish the workouts. She was on the same track as world-class athletes, which she once was, and no longer belonged.

But Kersee and Devers’ training partners wouldn’t let her quit, knowing that it was not the training but the contact with her friends that would help.

Kersee sought to keep Devers as part of the group, even when she could no longer run, literally. When her feet bled so badly that she could not put weight on them, Devers brought an exercise bike out to the track and stubbornly rode in place while her teammates ran around the track.

About this time Kersee had a dream he has never forgotten. In his dream, he was in a rowboat, rowing in a heavy storm against huge waves. He was trying to reach Devers, who was on an island of rocks. Waves were crashing against her. Rain was lashing.

And everywhere, she was bleeding. Her knees were bleeding and her hands, which she held toward Kersee, were covered in blood.

Kersee cried out to her in the storm, “Go to the top, go to the top!”

Devers clambered over the rocks and she bled even more. “Keep going!” Kersee yelled.

As Devers made it to the top of the rocks, Kersee woke up.


Devers can almost laugh about her “return to childhood.” It happened as she was supposed to be emerging from adolescence, in her early 20s. At the time, Devers’ parents moved into her home to take care of her.

By March of 1991, Devers was starting to believe she was getting better. She began to hope that it would be safe to step up her training to the pre-Graves’ levels. That was a mistake.

The problem was with her feet, which caused her great pain. One podiatrist told her the swelling and bleeding were because of athlete’s foot. Finally, another doctor made all the right connections. He told her that if she had waited only two more days to see him, he would have amputated her feet.

“The thought of losing your feet . . . “ Devers said. “Every day I cried. The pain was so excruciating it hurt with every step I took. That’s when they put me under house arrest.”

House arrest meant Devers cut a deal with her doctor. They wouldn’t put her in the hospital if she would, absolutely, not walk for three weeks. Not even put her feet on the floor.

Devers agreed. Her parents came up from San Diego and moved in with her. Unable to walk, she was helpless. Her father had to carry her to the bathroom, where her mother helped her bathe.

Devers worked out a system so that her father didn’t have to carry her up and down stairs all day. She would let him know in the morning whether she was going to spend the entire day upstairs or down. Her treat came at the end of every day when her father carried her out to the porch, and for 10 minutes she was allowed to sit and watch the sunset.

By mid-April Devers was back jogging, but her comeback was not yet complete--while warming up before her first workout, Devers suffered a strained hamstring and had to rest for another two weeks.

On May 9 of last year, Devers went over five hurdles. She felt like crying for happiness. The next day she set about trying to run over 10 hurdles. Then she and Kersee talked about running at a meet. Then they dared to discuss getting a qualifying time for the World Championships at Tokyo in August.

Devers ran a wind-aided 13.28 at Modesto, her first meet. The qualifying time was 13.65. All that was left was to go to the national championships and place in the top three.

Counted out, Devers advanced to the final, each race getting faster. In the final, she ran 12.83, the fastest time in the nation that year.

Devers went to the World Championships and placed second. “I was the happiest silver medalist in Tokyo,” she said.

It seemed to Devers that she had crawled from the wreckage of her life and career and started over. She wondered if she was, finally, healed.

Devers’ thyroid gland was obliterated by the radiation. Every day, for the rest of her life, she must take a drug called synthroid to regulate her body. And she still suffers from insomnia.

Heat brings on attacks of psoriasis, which flared again last month at the U.S. Olympic trials. Devers said she “freaked out” when she looked at her hands and knees but was soothed by Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who reminded her that the worst was over.

It was. Devers made a dazzling comeback, winning the hurdles and placing second in the 100-meter dash.

“Athletics was the key to saving her life,” Kersee said. “It was something she could hold onto. It was something that was taken away from her that she didn’t want to lose. That competitive spirit kept her alive.”

Kersee might be right. Devers found something to fight for, the hardest thing.

“I view my recovery as a miracle,” Devers said, smiling. “The fact that I’m standing here, the fact that I can even walk, I’m so thankful. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted. Not even being able to walk across the room.

“I’ve also learned that I was able to overcome so much. Nothing in track seems like it will ever be a problem for me, after this.”