One Dream: Gold Medalist Gail Devers Shares Her Inspiring Health Journey
This article is part of our One Dream, Better Health series, where we showcase the lives and talent of three track and field stars. Their stories and goals are part of a bigger dream we all share – that no matter who you are, where you are, or what stage of life’s journey you are in, better health is a dream we all share.
Olympic gold medalist Gail Dever’s journey can only be described as storybook. It’s one of perseverance and dominance, of setbacks and comebacks, and it’s all led to a Hall of Fame career for Team USA Track and Field.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time Olympian’s journey began in high school.
“My brother made me run cross country and then track when I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. He said he knew from when we were young how fast I was because he would set up matches in the neighborhood and I would win them all,” Gail said.
Her brother was right. Devers’s talent soon became apparent on the track, and after high school she set her sights on something bigger – the world stage.
“My Olympic journey began when I set it as a goal and wrote it on a sticky in 1985 and signed it,” Gail said. “I worked hard and trained hard, and my performances showed progress. I set American records in the hurdles and ran fast in the 100 meters.”
However, as Gail continued her training for the Olympics, she began to notice something wasn’t right.
“I made my first U.S. Olympic Team in 1988, but didn’t make it to the finals and ran slower than I had ever run since high school.” she said. “I knew something was wrong. Then ‘the bottom fell out.’ I got really sick.”
The Diagnosis and Gail’s Health Journey
“I would describe my health journey during the late 80’s early 90’s as a ‘living nightmare.’ It was hard to train, my heart rate was always racing, I couldn’t sleep, and I was constantly fatigued. I was pulling my hamstrings jogging. I lost a lot of weight – at my worst I was between 79-82 pounds. My eyes were bulging and I had extreme headaches. My ‘trademark’ fingernails were brittle and breaking, and normally my nails didn’t break unless I was doing something crazy. My hair was also falling out, and my skin was breaking out with what looked like vitiligo (light patches of discoloration on my skin),” Gail said.
Despite her symptoms, Gail had trouble getting a diagnosis.
“I went from doctor to doctor being told nothing was wrong for almost three years before finally being diagnosed with Graves’ Disease.”
For Gail, it was the years of waiting to find an answer and her setbacks in training that were the hardest part.
“For years I just needed an answer, any answer. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t look or feel like myself,” she says. “And being told nothing was wrong, or maybe you’re training too hard, or you’ve peaked too soon, or it’s all in your head, was making me crazy.”
“I know my body and depend on my body, and my body is letting me down and I’m getting no help. I had to stop running for a time because of the severe impact the disease was taking on my body. As an athlete who had set what I would call realistic goals, it was devastating to me.”
“Your thyroid influences every cell, organ, and tissue in your body, and mine was taking a toll on me. I couldn’t stand the way I looked. I was rail thin with an emaciated face. I stopped looking at myself and covered my mirrors and stayed in the house, totally withdrawn,” Gail said. “I felt like I couldn’t go out because I had no answers to questions when people would look at me and gawk asking, ‘What happened? What’s wrong with you?’ It was believed I was either on drugs, bulimic, or anorexic.”
Gail dug down into her own strength. She knew her body. She knew the goals she aspired to accomplish. And she knew she had to keep searching for answers.
“What help me overcome was faith, strength, and action,” she told us. “I had to become my own health advocate. I went from doctor to doctor until I got answers. My diagnosis was a godsend because I was not crazy or making it up. I also wasn’t a washed-up athlete needing to find something else to do. But it was also scary, not knowing what to expect, but figuring it had to be better than the last few years of not knowing because at least now I would be under a doctor’s care.”
Finally having the answers she needed, Gail was ready to get back on track and achieve the goal she first wrote to herself on a sticky note – competing on the world stage.
Competing on the World Stage
After her diagnosis of Graves’ Disease, Gail felt relief, because now that she had answers, she could do something about it.
“I write down things I experience or feel from one appointment to the next so my doctor and I can first have a conversation to see if there are new concerns,” she says. “ I am monitored regularly to see if my medication needs to be adjusted to keep me ‘on track.’”
After the setback in her health journey, Gail was ready to work and make her goal a reality. She made it happen, and those goals turned to gold.
“I competed in a total of five Olympic Games, earning three gold medals and nine World Championship medals,” she said. “I remember my first gold medal because I was taking my victory lap after winning the 100-meter gold in Barcelona in 1992, and the cameraman kept telling me to slow and savor the moment. I guess I was running pretty fast on my victory lap, and I jokingly told him to ‘keep up’ because he didn’t know what I had gone through to get there.”
For Gail, competing in the Olympics was the culmination of a dream she had all the way back in high school, and her perseverance in the face of the health hurdles she faced helped get her there.
“The favorite part for me competing in the Olympics is to represent myself and my country in fair play,” Gail says. “To put it all on the line for that 10, 11, 12, or 13 seconds, depending on the event. To leave the track knowing I am successful because of my own effort. That I always give 110% – that’s what makes me successful.”
On Healthy Aging Habits
Gold medalists like Gail Devers don’t retire. She still treats every day like it’s training day – and her experience with Graves’ disease has taught her the importance of knowing her body and understanding its needs.
“Even in retirement, I want to stay active and fit,” Gail says. She does so by setting new fitness goals for herself, like running in marathons, while maintaining healthy nutrition and lifestyle habits.
“I ran a half marathon – 13.1 miles – at age 53. It was a great challenge and goal. I ran 1:53. At that time I ran workouts up to 12 miles, including hills. Now at 54, I do something active at least three times a week. That doesn’t always mean running. It could be running, but also jogging, walking 1, 3, or 5 miles, riding my bike 5-7 miles, or dancing with my girls. It sometimes is me jogging a few laps and demonstrating hurdles or jumps for kids at the school. I have no set regimen, because I believe any BODY moving is a BODY moving in the right direction. Regardless of your age, just keep moving,” she says.
When it comes to diet, Gail follows a simple mantra.
“We truly are what we eat so, so I pay close attention to what I eat. I think moderation is the key for me,” she says. “I love fruits, vegetables, and seafood. I’m not a big eater. I eat to live not live to eat, but I have my moments.”
As for Gail’s healthy aging habits, she offers two pieces of advice – keep your mind active and be sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs.
“I try to stay active also with my mind. I love to read, crochet, and do puzzles. I want my mind, body, and soul to be fit. I plan on living to 100,” she laughs. “I want to be healthy.
“As I got older, I wanted to make sure I was doing everything necessary for me, so I decided to start taking supplements,” Gail said. “I was researching trying to figure out what might help me at my age and being female. I always believe in fate – no accidents – so when a friend from my UCLA days suggested I look into Thorne, I did. What impressed me most is the process of filtration and the thoroughness of the company and products being made in the USA. I take Thorne’s zinc, Meriva, and Super EPA. I really like their magnesium, which is a scoop in eight ounces of water with really good flavor. I drink the Amino Complex and Catalyte and Vanilla Protein before, during, or after a workout. And I’m getting ready to add potassium and a few other Thorne products.”
“I have always had healthy nails, but I believe I have found the new secret for everyone in Thorne’s Biotin for healthy nails and skin,” Gail says. “What I have found with Thorne that amazes me is that going from no supplements to adding some that I assumed my urine would be crazy discolored or have a smell – I was so glad that is not the case. I feel like my body is actually absorbing the nutrients, and with what I am taking and drinking my body is well hydrated allowing the nutrients to do their job.”
Gail’s Advice for Athletes Competing in Tokyo
With the Tokyo Games just around the corner, we asked Gail if she has advice for the young athletes who will be competing this summer. She reflected on her own sacrifices and experiences, and how athletes should use these setbacks to drive their performance.
“For every athlete competing this summer, my advice is to remember the sacrifices and the workouts you’ve done. Remember wondering if the Games would happen and you having to find new and creative ways to train during the Pandemic,” she says. “All those factors should give you a burning desire to make the best of every situation. Understand that you must remember where you came from, live in and take advantage of the moment you’re in while planning for the future. Realize that nothing is guaranteed. Run, throw, hurdle, and jump with heart. Leave or hold nothing back and go claim your victory. Success is defined by you – by doing your 110%.”