Gail Devers

Gail Devers

BY KAREN ROSEN

Some people recognize Gail Devers for holding the title “Fastest Woman in the World." After all, she won back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic 100-meter dash in the 1990s.

Other people remember her scrabbling across the Barcelona finish line on her hands and knees and remind her, “You were the one who fell over the hurdle.”

“I say the hurdle hit me,” she said.

And still others recall Devers as the one with the fingernails, talons nearly 4 inches long and usually painted blue.

Now she can be remembered as a Hall of Famer as well.

Devers, was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate and the ceremony will be broadcast by NBC Sports Network on Aug. 23. She competed in five Olympic Games, winning gold medals in the 100 meters in 1992 and 1996 and on the 4 x 100-meter relay in 1996.

But the 100-meter hurdles were arguably Devers’  signature event. A 10-time national champion, she also won three World Championships and was runner-up twice from 1991 to 2001.

Devers, 45, still holds the American record of 12.33 seconds, set in 2000. But she never won any medal in the hurdles in those five Olympic Games, due to hard luck, illness, injury or just being too fast for her own good when she crashed over the 10th hurdle in 1992.

“It’s not the fall; it’s how you get up and how you recover from that,” said Devers, who went from leading the race to finishing fifth. “No matter what race I ran, I gave it my all. If it didn’t work out, it just didn’t work out because it wasn’t meant to be, not because I didn’t try.”

Devers and Wyomia Tyus were the only female sprinters to win back-to-back 100 meter titles until Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce accomplished the feat in London.

“She really loved the hurdles,” said Tyus, who won the event in 1964 and 1968. “That was her baby, the hurdles. But she learned to know that the 100 was really her baby.”

Devers wasn’t always a sprinter. Encouraged to run track at age 15 by her brother, Parenthesis, she started out as an 800-meter runner in San Diego. Although Devers set a California Interscholastic Federation record in that event, she wanted to sample different events.

“I got to the 100 and I’m like, ‘Ooohhh. I don’t have to go around the track, I don’t have to think about anything but just go! One speed, one lane, I don’t have to do curves. And I kind of just stayed there.”

Devers attended UCLA and set an American record in the 100 hurdles, making her a favorite for the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games in the event.

“Then it just kind of went downhill from there,” Devers said.

She was struggling to get through practice, and at the U.S. Olympic Trials, her coach, Bob Kersee, pulled her out of the 100 so she could be rested for the hurdles.

She made the U.S. team, but finished eighth in her semifinal at the Olympic Games.

“Just walking around, I felt like, ‘This is not me, it’s not my body. I don’t understand what’s going on.’”

It took 2 ½ years before Devers was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease. She went from doctor to doctor, hearing that her hair was falling out because of stress or other misdiagnoses for her fatigue and brittle nails.

She now advocates that people take a simple blood test to identify Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid.

But even when Devers knew what was wrong with her, her problems weren’t over. She woke up one day with blood blisters on her feet and a podiatrist tried to treat her for athletes’  foot.

Devers’ skin was peeling off and she suffered second-degree burns. Her feet swelled so badly and were so painful that she had to crawl to the bathroom. After she started itching and scratching all over her body until she bled, her brother took her to the hospital.

“The doctors said, ‘You’re really lucky because had you continued to walk on those feet and not gotten any treatment, the thought is that we may have had to amputate both of them,’ ” Devers said.

With new treatment, Devers recovered. She said she was inspired by 1960 Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph, who overcame childhood polio. “I always felt like if she could do it, I could do it, too,” Devers said.

At the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials, Devers entered both the 100 and the hurdles.

“I honestly don’t think I was the favorite at anything,” Devers said. “It was, ‘Oh wow, we’re just glad to see you’re back.’ ”

But Devers believed in herself. “If I listen to what everybody else says, I’d be a basket case,” she said, “so for me, I believed that I could do it.”

However, in the second round, Devers felt her feet tingling like they did four years earlier. She told her coach.

“Everybody knows Bob Kersee will curse you out in a heartbeat, so we had our little conversation over in the corner,” Devers said. “And the last thing he told me, he said, ‘Your hands, do you feel tingling in your hands?’ I said no. He said, ‘Well you better work the h-e-l-l out of your hands and tell your feet to keep up.’ I said OK. I did.”

Running in Lane 2, while the favorites were in the middle lanes, Devers won by the slimmest of margins. The top five women in Barcelona were within .06 of each other, with Devers the champion in a personal best 10.82 seconds.

Waiting on the track for the results to appear on the scoreboard is “that moment where time stands still,” Devers said. “It feels like forever and a day. It’s like, ‘Just put somebody’s name, I don’t care whose name it is, just to take the tension off the moment.’

“It’s like you’re holding your breath. And how long can you actually hold your breath?”

When she saw the “1” next to her name, Devers jumped up and down, clapped, embraced Kersee, who had somehow gotten onto the track, and took off running on her victory lap.

“The camera man from NBC — that’s what I remember the most,” she said, “because they’ve got the big camera and the big cord and he and somebody else were trying to follow me around.

“I remember him saying, ‘Hey, slow down, you’re supposed to savor the moment.’ It’s supposed to be slow and I think I was on overdrive. I just couldn’t believe it because 18 months prior to that I was crawling, and to be able to walk again and put on shoes ... and here I am! I’ve won a gold medal for myself and for my country. There is no better feeling.”

Devers carried her newfound speed into the hurdles, unaware she was headed for disaster. The hurdles are a rhythm race, and her rhythm was off. “I’m known for being close to my hurdles anyway,” Devers said. “I needed it to only be nine hurdles in that race, but it doesn’t work out like that.”

She didn’t quit, though, and crawled across the line. “I felt like a baseball player flying into first. You gotta get there however you get there … Your goal is to finish the race.”

In Atlanta four years later, Devers defended her 100-meter title. Although she and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica had the same time, 10.94 seconds, Devers won in a photo finish, just as she had edged Ottey at the 1993 World Championships.

“They don’t ask, ‘Did you win by the skin of your teeth?’ ” Tyus said. “They ask, ‘Did you win?’ and she did. That just lets you know you have great competition and you edged them out.”

Again, Devers was a favorite going into the hurdles, but she “had the slowest start I’d ever had, like somebody held me back,” said Devers, who was known as a fast starter. “The gun went off and then it was like, ‘OK, now go.’ ”

She missed a bronze medal by a scant .01 of a second. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

At the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Devers was fresh off her new American record, but pulled a hamstring.

Then at age 37, Devers again doubled in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, but aggravated a calf injury. She was eliminated in the semifinals in the 100. After a false start in her hurdles heat, Devers, who was going over the first hurdle, felt the injury flare up again.

“I remember walking, back, trying to pump myself up and say it doesn’t matter, just get there and do what you’ve got to do, because this is what you came for,” she said.

When the gun went off again for the real start, Devers went under the first hurdle instead of over it. She left the stadium on crutches.

“You get to the point where it just doesn’t work out, but what you can say is that you did your all and you went for as long as you could and that’s what I did,” Devers said.

The next year, Devers and husband, Mike Phillips, welcomed daughter, Karsen. Another daughter, Legacy, joined the family in 2007.

Devers, who lives in Buford, Ga., now gives motivational speeches and is active at her daughter’s school. “I was the room mom for several classes, not just my daughter’s,” she said, “just because I feel like if there’s a need, and I have the time, I’m going to help.”

Devers’ fingernails are now very short. “Usually every three years, I cut them off,” she said, “and when I cut them, I cut them down to the nub.” She has also shorn her hair.

Although honored to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, Devers said, “I keep laughing; I never officially told anybody I retired. I figure that’s their way of retiring me, so I have to accept it.”

But every now and then Devers gets an invitation to run: “People say, ‘You must be fast, so do you want to race?’ ” she said. “Usually men will ask me when I’m at a function and I have on high heels. I’m like ‘OK,’ because they just assume you’re going to say, ‘No.’ I don’t back down from a challenge now … We can go in the heels, too, not a problem.”

That scares them off.

Wise move. 

Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.