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She’s Like the Wind
Five-Time U.S. Olympian Gail Devers overcame daunting obstacles to earn the rarest of titles: “fastest woman in the world.”

by Debra Wallace

As a woman in her early 20s, Gail Devers was so plagued with health problems, she was barely able to leave her home. Yet her indomitable spirit helped her become one of the most dominant athletes of her time.

In 1990, Devers experienced extreme weight loss, fatigue and insomnia. She was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an immune disorder that causes the body to overproduce thyroid hormones. Her declining health urged her to cover all the mirrors in her home because “the person looking back at me was a skeleton of me at 79 or 80 pounds.”

She also suffered from intense eye pain and other symptoms of thyroid eye disease. Despite such daunting obstacles, she went on to win back-to-back 100-meter Olympic gold medals and three World Championships in 100-meter hurdles.

“I remember crawling on my hands and knees in my house wondering if I’ll ever walk again,” she says. “And then in 1992 to go on to win a gold medal [was incredible]. I took my victory lap and the cameraman was following me. He said, ‘Slow down. You’re supposed to savor the moment.’ I replied, ‘You’d better come on because you don’t know what I’ve gone through!’”

Devers has since been inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame. She was one of several speakers at the 20th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women, held in Philadelphia last November. Devers may not be from Philly, but she has spent a lot of time here: She used to run in the Penn Relays.


What is it about you or your upbringing that made you persevere?

My faith is unstoppable. I’ve always said I’ve got this guardian angel that rests on my shoulder, and if I live my life right, things are going to work out OK for me. I believe that it’s not just me. I’m not special. I think everybody has within them this championship mentality or spirit; just sometimes you don’t know it.

Sometimes you need other people to help bring it out. Sometimes life gets hard and you feel like the walls are closing in, and there’s no way out. You have to reach even deeper down inside of you, but you have it in you. When you feel like you can’t go on, that’s what teammates do: We help each other and we support each other.


So, you are speaking out to help others seek the answers they need.

Yes, my goal now is just to make sure that everybody knows to listen to your eyes. Your body knows. We get signs, but we’re like, “I’m too busy.” We need to write down the symptoms and not stop until we get answers. I call thyroid eye disease by the name TED because it’s like having an unwanted guest. If you have company coming, you know that company is coming so you’re prepared for them. So, if you have Graves’ disease, listen to your eyes, because up to 50% of people with Graves’ disease may develop thyroid eye disease. I want to use my voice to spread this message to people.


You coach your daughter’s high school track team in Lawrenceville, Georgia. As a mentor, what is your best advice for teenage girls?

I’ve always told them, “Be the best that you can be and you’re going to take the world by storm.” Being involved in sports teaches you a never-give-up attitude, that every day is not going to be rosy, but it’s on those days that you find that strength and you just keep pushing through.


What was it like to be the fastest woman in the world?

It’s an honor. I was known as a hurdler and not a sprinter. I hopped into sprints working on my speed for the hurdles. … Wyomia Tyus and I were the only two at that time to win back-to-back gold medals in the 100 meters and retain the title of world’s fastest woman.

Being successful means that you’re willing to do everything in your power. … You’re a winner by stepping to the line, you’re a winner by putting one foot forward in the morning, and you’re a winner by making the best grade that you can. All I ask my kids is to be the best version of themselves.

Photo Credit: Jessica McGowan

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 12 (March 2023)

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