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Gail Devers

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.

Chronology

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.

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