The following article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Science of Mind Magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).
How ‘America’s Fastest Woman’ Found Inspiration from Across the Lines of Time
By Mitch Horowitz
One young girl grew up black in a segregated Southern town where childhood polio forced her to walk with a limp until she was eleven years old. She went on to become a three-time gold medalist in Olympic track and field, the first American woman ever to win the gold three times.
Another young black woman suffered from a crippling bout with Graves Disease, so severe at one point that medical authorities believed her legs would require amputation. She recovered to become what The New York Times this year called “the greatest combination sprinter/hurdler to put on track shoes.”
Two generations apart, these two women – Olympic legends Wilma Rudolph and Gail Devers – would touch one another’s lives in an uncanny yin-yang of perseverance, positive thought, and personal excellence. They would meet only twice – both times in 1993, the year before the older Rudolph died of brain cancer – but each of their lives would indelibly touch the other’s.
Champions Are Made
Today, Gail Devers, 37, has won three Olympic gold medals and a variety of world championships. Yet, to all appearances her career as a runner and hurdler was over when she was forced out of the 1988 Olympic Games by an undiagnosed case of Graves Disease. The thyroid disorder had sapped her energy, and almost led to the amputation of her legs after catastrophic side effects caused by radiation treatments. But in one of the most miraculous recoveries in sports history, Devers re-emerged from the ordeal to capture the gold at the 1992 games.
Devers credits her comeback to drive, determination, and affirmative thought – “I think positive begets positive, and the same is true on the opposite side. We’re magnets.”
And, perhaps, to a childhood voice that was whispering in her ear. Devers, it turned out, had something to draw on that seemed almost programmed into her life. As a sixth grade girl growing up outside San Diego, Devers told Science of Mind that, “As part of an assignment, we had to go to the library and everyone had to pick a book. I walked down an aisle and a book fell out. So I picked up the book and I took it home, and I said, ‘okay this is the book for me, I don’t have to figure out what I’m going to read.’ It ended up being the Wilma Rudolph story.”
As the future Olympian tells it, “I kept the book and each year I read it over and over and over until it didn’t have a cover any more. I believe in destiny. I didn’t have any interest in track and field, I wasn’t running track and field; I just thought it was interesting that she had gone through polio, and I did use that as a source of inspiration myself going through my Graves Disease, saying that, ‘If Wilma could do it so can I.’”
Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a more inspiring figure in 20th century American sports than Wilma Rudolph. The twentieth of twenty-two children, Rudolph was born prematurely in 1940 with a disease that would routinely cripple children until its vaccine was discovered more than two decades later. Raised in a poor family in Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph was homebound by a steel brace that straightened her crooked, weakened left leg. Without a cure for polio, it was doubtful that Wilma would ever walk without assistance. But through constant exercise, faith (“the doctors told me I would never walk, but my mother told me I would, so I believed in my mother”), and the finest treatment that her black Baptist family could afford at Nashville hospitals, Wilma not only recovered her ability to walk unattended but became a notable high school athlete. By the age of 16, she was on her way to becoming the first three-time American female gold medalist in history.
Devers’ victories took an equally unlikely path. A rising track star, Devers bottomed out in the 1988 games. Soon after, she would begin an athlete’s nightmare: She experienced severe fatigue, dizziness, migraines, and fainting spells – and yet physicians again and again dismissed her problems as being “all in her head.” Devers was relived to finally receive a firm diagnoses: she was suffering from Graves Disease, a disorder that inflames the thyroid gland and disrupts the body’s metabolism. Yet things were fated to get worse before they got better.
Fearing ejection from competition for using banned substances, Devers refused the drugs that were intended to mitigate side effects from the radiation therapy required to treat her enlarged thyroid. The results were as unexpected as they were calamitous: Devers developed excruciatingly painful lesions on her feet, and sores and scales all over her body and face. Her weight plummeted. She grew weaker. Devers was so distraught over her appearance – “alligator woman,” she called herself – that she covered all the mirrors in her Los Angeles home. “I look at myself in mirror and I remember what I looked like during those times, and I see myself now, and if I didn’t know me back then it would be hard to remember what I used to look like and what I went through.”
Devers’ condition would deteriorate even further. Her feet swelled so severely that the 5-foot, 3-inch runner could squeeze only into a size-12 men’s sneaker – and eventually she couldn’t walk at all. Family members had to carry her to the bathroom. Her feet grew so swollen and infected that medical authorities actually believed they might require amputation – a diagnosis Devers fought with all her might. Eventually, recovery came and Devers began a lifelong program taking a synthetic thyroid pill. Most remarkably, Devers – with the help of legendary track and field coach Bobby Kersee – began to run again. At first, she rode a stationary bike at trackside; then she walked; then jogged; and eventually began to sprint and jump – amazingly, in time to become a gold medalist at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
Oddly enough, Devers is adamant today that running was never her true passion. “I don’t like to run,” she insists. “I never thought I’d be an athlete at all. I wanted to be a teacher.” But she finds a deeper logic in how things turned out: “As I look at my life now, I am a teacher – I have a bigger classroom, though.” Devers is committed to passing on lessons about recovery, achievement – and something about life’s larger principles.
A 1993 ceremony in Washington, D.C., honored some of the leading athletes of the 20th century, including Muhammad Ali – and Wilma Rudolph. Devers was selected to present Rudolph with a lifetime achievement award. “I talk about the Circle of Life,” Devers says of meeting her hero. “Everything starts and ends at the same place.” Devers and Rudolph met for the first time earlier in 1993 at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany. The 54-year-old Rudolph would die the following year.
“She played a very special part in my life,” Devers says, “The Circle always closes; you don’t ever see an opening in the Circle – that’s not a circle. And it all has closure – and that was closure for me. The start of it was the book at a young age; and the similarities in the Circle were: we both had a disease, and we both had trying times that we had to go through, and then the ending of that Circle was her talking to me in 1993 and giving me words of encouragement and advice, and then my giving her an award at the end of that same summer and sharing with her what she means to me.” Devers recalls Rudolph seeking her out at Stuttgart, rather than the other way around.
“I don’t believe that there are coincidences,” Devers said. “Destiny plays a great part in it.” She goes even further: “The positive forces that guide my life made sure that was supposed to happen.” While ardently unaffiliated – “my affiliation is that I have a connection with God, bottom line” – Devers admires the principles of Science of Mind. “There’s a force out there in nature that allows or puts things in place, and sets it in place for people – whatever you call it. Even in science there is a force of nature that allows things to keep moving in the right direction. That’s how I look at life, that’s how I live my life…there’s all kinds of forces out there; now, I chose, and what seems to bond with me is, the positive.”
Again, Devers sees herself first as a teacher. “Once I’ve realized that I’ve overcome something, I can’t just leave it at that; I’m the type of person who has to share it with somebody else.”
On Her Own
Today, Devers can easily be considered one of the most self-motivated figures in all of athletics. She successfully competes at an unusually late age for a runner, and – remarkably – she coaches herself. “I’m 10-to-12 years older than anyone I’m competing against…I have the title of grandma, but it’s a title I take proudly. I’ve been in the sport 22 years, that’s a long time.”
Ending her professional relationship in 2001 with Bobby Kersee, Devers is one of the only major runners in the world today who works without a personal coach. In 2004, Devers made history by winning back-to-back victories in the 60-meter dash and 60-meter hurdles in the U.S. indoor championships. “A lot of people say you cannot coach yourself in a technical event, there’s no way. And I’ve had my most success since I’ve been on my own, but I tell people that I’m not really on my own.” Devers possesses a deep, personal instinct for how to build a spiritual base of support for herself – sometimes alone, and sometimes with the help of others. She identifies several steps:
- Bible and Prayer. Devers cites her favorite Scripture passage as Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” With this in mind, she prays all the time. “I’m constantly praying. Do I have a certain time that I sit and meditate? No. Is there a certain way I do it? No. I’m constantly calling on God and asking Him to help me through my day.”
- Sacred Contracts. “I actually sign a contract with myself for any goal that I set out to do, no matter what it is; because that holds you accountable.”
- Journaling. Devers writes constantly: to relax, to sort out ideas, and to inspire friends. “I like to write…that’s how I clear my head.” She gives inspirational writings to friends – and wants to one day publish her “own small inspiration oracle.”
- Faith in the Higher. Devers insists that her Olympic comeback was one part work, one part faith. “Nobody gets where they are by themselves, there is something or some force out there that has helped you. For me, it’s asking God to come into your life. I tell kids all the time we get into trouble when we ask man to help us…when He created me, He gave me a box of potential, and all He asks is that we keep reaching into that box, and He’ll keep blessing it.”
Family Power. While Devers’ marriage to a fellow runner ended in divorce amid the pressures of her illness, her childhood family remains a wellspring of support. She speaks fondly of her past: “We were a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family; we sat down and ate at a certain time; did things together as a family on weekends; we did chores together; we were very close knit … I have one brother 14-months apart, so he and I talk all the time. When we were kids, my dad was not one who would come in and tell you to turn the TV off, but he would ask you a trivia question that he made up; immediately we’d just get a pen and paper and try to figure out what the answer was.”
Defining Success, Not Being Defined By It
There is another element in Devers’ life, perhaps the key thing that characterizes her. It comes down simply to a belief in what athletes call personal best. “To me success does not mean that you have to be number one or have the most money or own the company, it means that you have to give your all. I tell people that at the end of every task, ask yourself a question, a very basic one: ‘Did you do all that you can do?’ And if the answer is ‘yes,’ you’re successful, and don’t let anybody tell you anything any different.” In her own life, Devers cites a hurdling injury that bounced her out of the 2000 Olympic Games: “I was injured going into the meet; I guess I thought I was superwoman. There are ten hurdles in a race, and in the semi-finals for every hurdle that I went over, it was like a piece of paper tearing, which was my hamstring. I got through five, and then I was out of the race. And all I heard was: ‘Devers is out.’ Although my friends told me no one said that! Well somebody told me! But I was successful in the Olympic Games because I gave it my all.”
“We let society define what success really is, and that’s wrong. The Olympic year comes up and people will say, ‘Did you win an Olympic medal?’ And if I say ‘no,’ they’re like, ‘oh, that’s too bad’ – no it’s not. Do you know how many people can make it to the Olympic Games? Do you know how many people can make it to the finals? Do you know how many people can get on that podium? If you look at a race, and there’s eight people in the race, are you going to tell me that there can only be one person that comes across the finish line first?”
This is the quality that allows Devers – an Olympic champion in what many would consider the winter of her career – neither to fear the future, nor cling to the past. By Spring 2004, Devers had already qualified for the trials to the Athens summer games; but had not yet decided whether to attend. “I really go meet-by-meet,” Devers said, revealing no feelings of pressure over the decision she faces.
“What are you?” she asks. “Are you society-made? Man-made? Who do you live for? That sets up the race. I could walk away from track and field and know that my life is complete.”
* * *
The Gail Devers Foundation:
Charity with a Personal Twist
Charitable or educational foundations run by athletes are nothing new. But Gail Devers’ organization represents an unusually personal endeavor – and a broad-reaching one.
Devers started her organization to save others “from going through three years of what I went through.” To provide such tools, the Gail Devers Foundation (www.gaildeversfoundation.org) does a little bit of everything: each year it raises money for a different auto-immune deficiency disorder; it grants youth scholarships (Devers keeps personally in touch with many of the recipients and their families); organizes peer support groups; and sponsors programs for delivering gifts to the poor during the holidays.
In discussing her Holiday of Cheer program, Devers is matter-of-fact as ever: “We give them toys at Christmas and age does not matter,” she told an athletics newsletter earlier this year. “From 0 to 100. But I am not doing it for effect; I am doing it because I want to.”
Email Mitch at: email@example.com