She knows what it means to be down and find a way back up
By Charles Hallman
In between two historic Olympic gold-medal performances, Gail Devers’ body was physically falling apart, and she and the doctors couldn’t figure out why.
“I started to lose weight — I lost so much weight, I weighed 108 pounds [down from 125]” in 1988, recalled Devers as she spoke to a room full of young females as keynote speaker at the 2012 Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) Softball World Series closing banquet August 11. “My hair was falling out.”
Doctors also discussed amputating her feet before Devers was finally diagnosed in 1989 with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition that causes an overactive thyroid.
Graves’ disease is the most common type of hyperthyroidism, caused by a malfunctioning of the immune system as antibodies are produced that attack good cells. As a result, the thyroid cells produce too much thyroid hormone, which in turn, over-stimulates the thyroid.
According to thyroid-info.com, it can take weeks or months before a person thinks they are experiencing anything other than severe emotional stress, which is most commonly suspected, although it is possible to develop Graves’ disease without experiencing stress. Smoking, radiation to the neck, and certain medications are factors as well.
There may also be swelling of the eyes, blurred vision, and sometimes reddish thickening of the skin, which may be painless but is a sign that antibodies are attacking the tissues in front of the shins.
The ailment is more prevalent in women than in men by about an eight-to-one ratio, and typically it occurs in middle age. However, Devers was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in her early 20s and was subsequently treated with radioactive iodine (RAI).
“It took them about three years” to find the right diagnosis, she said. During that time, however, “I put my life on hold. It was the worst thing I had to go through, but I was determined. I won’t quit.
“My goal was to get to the Olympic Games,” said Devers. “What I learned about myself was that I was stronger than I thought I was. I attribute that to being involved in sports.
“You don’t have to aspire to be an Olympian,” she points out, “but we learn from being in sports. We learn dedication, determination and leadership. We get down, but we find a way to get back up. Besides that, we are women — women are strong, because we have to go through a whole lot of stuff that other people don’t have to go through, and we still find ways to make it through.”
Devers says she must take the medications daily, and a change in diet brought the disease under control. She went on to become one of the greatest sprinters in Olympic history, winning gold in the 100 meters in 1992 and 1996. She also won three world championships in the 100-meter hurdles.
“When I was growing up, I was considered a dreamer,” said Devers, whose track fame first emerged as a UCLA student-athlete in the late 1980s. “That’s OK as long as you take that dream and turn it into a goal.
“When I say turn something into a goal, I write it down and I place it in several places in my house. They are constant reminders to me on what it is I’m working towards. When I write it down, I am determined to make it.”
Now a middle-aged woman, the three-time retired Olympic champion points out, “I am a big person that deals with goals. I say it all the time — you have to have a goal, and set a goal.”
Devers told the MSR afterwards, “I never write speeches. I just talk from my heart and what I really feel.” She hopes the young women left with the heart of her message: “How we can figure out how and what we can do that will make a difference in our lives, and somebody else’s life. I’m very blessed to speak to them.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]