Devers hurdles disease, aims at Olympics

June 19, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Gail Devers crawled and cried.

The soles of her feet were charred and covered with blood. They were so swollen she looked like she was wearing five pairs of athletic socks. They hurt so badly that she would hop from one foot to the other, until she finally fell to the floor, dragging herself across the hardwood from her bed to the bathroom, silver scales appearing on her knees, spreading to her arms and face.

She had been an Olympian, a sprinter capable of soaring over hurdles. But she was grounded by Graves' disease, a rare condition that sent her thyroid pulsing out of control.

Radiation therapy was supposed to work magic on her ailment. Instead, the radiation simply burned away the thyroid, and then, started to course through her body, finally doing damage to her feet, leaving her two days from amputation.

"I just felt like my feet were going to fall off," she said. "I was praying to God, 'Please, don't let me lose my feet.' "

Fifteen months later and Devers is standing and sprinting. Her nightmare is over. She aims for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials begin a 10-day run today in stifling heat and humidity at Tad Gormley Stadium. There are a lot of terrific stories, from the continuing sagas of Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee to the rise of stars like Michael Johnson and Mike Powell, to the controversy surrounding Butch Reynolds' court-room detour to overturn a drug suspension.

But Devers' story is the stuff of inspiration. She is 25. A smile creases her face. She stands in front of a cluster of reporters, making sure none stands on her feet, which are tucked inside a pair of sandals. Her toenails are polished pink.

"I shouldn't even be here," she said. "My whole recovery, I consider to be a miracle."

Four years ago, she had been among the bright stars of American track. There was nothing Devers couldn't do in a sprint. She was only 5 feet 3, 115 pounds, but she was world-class in the 100-meters. The American record holder in the 110 hurdles.

She talked of doubling at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. But something was wrong. She was struggling on the track. Her weight was fluctuating wildly, from 98 pounds to 130. One night, she was an insomniac, watching endless reruns of "I Love Lucy." The next night, she fell asleep quickly, waking groggily at noon. She had migraine headaches. Memory loss.

"The doctors kept telling me everything was fine," she said. "They kept saying, 'You're an Olympic athlete. You're traveling a lot. You're just tired.' "

She qualified for the 100 hurdles in Seoul. She finished fourth in a quarterfinal. Felt even worse. And then she was eighth and last in her semifinal heat with a time of 13.51 seconds, her slowest since high school.

She came home and her practices deteriorated. Her legs were weak. Finally, in Sept. 1990, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease, finallyreceiving an explanation for her wild body changes. Radiation treatments began almost immediately when doctors discovered a cyst on her thyroid.

"I didn't even know what a thyroid was," she said. "Now, I'm an expert. We tend to take for granted the little things in life, like walking across the room to the TV. But I take nothing for granted."

The radiation therapy took clumps of her hair and increased her menstrual periods to three times a month. Still, she was able to resume light training in February, 1991.

"I jogged a couple of times, but I got blood blisters on my toes," she said. "And then, I couldn't run."

A podiatrist told her she had athlete's foot, gave her an over-the-counter medicine, and sent her home.

L "I knew it was something worse," she said. "I knew my body."

In early March, her feet bled. She was taken to a hospital. The radiation had obliterated her thyroid, and was now running wild in her body.

"The doctors told me that had I walked on my feet for two more days, they would have been amputated," she said. "That's when they put me under house arrest. No walking. My parents had to bathe me. I consider myself independent. But that was like going back to infancy."

Her feet healed. She grew stronger. She trained for five weeks, and qualified for the World Championships in the 100 hurdles. And then, she went to Tokyo and won a silver medal and wept.

Now, she is in New Orleans. She talks again of completing an Olympic double. Only, this time, she is healthy.

U.S. Olympic trials for track and field

-!

When: Today through June 28

Where: Tad Gormley Stadium, New Orleans

What: Selection of 92 athletes to the U.S. Olympic team. The top three finishers in each event who have achieved Olympic qualifying standards will advance.

Who: More than 1,000 athletes. Among the best, world record holders Carl Lewis, Mike Powell and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson.

TV: Tomorrow and Sunday, plus June 27 and 28: NBC (channels 2, 4) will include trials in its "Olympic Showcase," 3-6 p.m.

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