July 31, 2012

Gail Devers Conquered Cancer and the Olympics


As a family, we are LOVING the Olympics!  Particularly wonderful are the back stories of the athletes.  I love to hear of the things they conquered to reach the Olympic stage.  School starting next week seems a distant worry.  

I remember one Olympic athlete who has a great story.  Gail Devers was a typical kid growing up in the Los Angeles area, just a few years younger than myself.  She started running track in High School and found that she liked it.  Moving on to college in 1984, at UCLA she found that she was REALLY good at certain events.  The coach, Robert Kersee, set high goals for Gail.  She thought he was crazy, but did what he said and began reaching the crazy high goals he had set.  She started shaving tenths of seconds, then seconds off her times in the 100 meter sprint and the 100 meter hurdles, her best events.  But more importantly, Kersee insisted that Gail consider herself a future Olympian.  He encouraged her to watch the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and picture herself there.  

Gail worked hard and became the Olympic athlete that Coach Kersee saw in her.  She qualified for the 1988 Seoul Olympics in the 100 hurdles after setting a US record.  But in Seoul, she performed poorly, and didn’t make the finals.  Going home filled with doubt must have been hard, but the next few months were even harder.  She began to feel worse as her health deteriorated.  

Doctors were baffled by her symptoms:  hair loss, vision loss, shaking, lethargy, extreme weight loss (she weighed only 87 pounds at one point), skin problems and other strange seemingly unrelated problems.  Back at home with her parents, she gave up all Olympic-sized goals and just tried to survive.  For 2 and a half years, she languished, hoping to get better.  She stopped going out in public when a child at the grocery store said about Gail, “Mom, what is wrong with that woman?  She looks like a monster.”   Gail explained, “I felt like a leper.  I was shedding clumps of hair. Most of the skin fell away from my face; the rest merely hung off it.”  It was just easier to stay home.  But to feel that she had some future in the Olympics, Gail lifted telephone books as she lay in bed.  

Finally, Doctors diagnosed her with Graves Disease, a cancer of the thyroid gland.  Instead of surgically removing the thyroid gland, Doctors gave Gail radiation in liquid form, which she would drink.  She was warned to keep the nauseating liquid down, or they’d have to give her more.  Doctors urged Gail to also take Beta-blocking drugs, which would help her deal with the side effects of the radiation.  But Gail refused.  It was a banned substance in the sports community.  Even an appeal to the International Association of Athletics Federation didn’t help.  They said that if she was tested and it showed up in her system, she would be banned from competing.  

Gail noticed side effects immediately.  Her feet developed severe bleeding blisters, some so large and painful that she couldn’t walk.   To get around, she crawled.  In February 1991, she was rushed to the hospital where doctors considered amputating her swollen pus-oozing feet to save her life.  Gail said, “I prayed to God: 'Not my feet, please. If you save them, I will use them for however long you wish me to.'“  Her radiation treatment was to blame—her dosage was too strong.  The radiation had not only destroyed the cyst and diseased portion of her thyroid gland, it nearly destroyed her thyroid gland completely.  And lack of the Beta-blockers enabled that massive secondary infection to take hold in her feet.  With a change in medication, she finally began to improve.  Within a month, Gail was walking again.  Some doctors are amazed she survived at all.  

As her health returned, her focus on the Olympics returned as well.  In March of 1991, she began training with Coach Kersee again.  Sportswriter Kenny Moore wrote, “It was the start of the greatest comeback in track history.”  Within just a few months, Gail won the Silver medal in the 1991 World Championships held in Tokyo in August 1991 in the 100 meter hurdles.  Just months earlier, Gail had been fighting for her life.  

Gail recalled, “A year later I was standing on the starting line for the Olympic 100m final in Barcelona. That was a difficult sensation to describe. Nineteen months earlier I had been crawling on my hands and knees. Now, although I was in lane two and no one gave me a chance, I told myself: 'I'm not afraid of anything or anybody. God, let your will be done.' I won the race. I was an Olympic champion - and I defended my title four years later at the Atlanta Games of 1996. But winning that first gold was indescribable.”

Many remember Gail for another triumph following a setback.  Gail had been favored to win Gold medals in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the 100 meter sprint and the 100 meter hurdles, her two best events.   As she described above, Gail won gold in the 100 meter sprint as planned.  But as she was stretched over the final hurdle, leading the 100 meter hurdle race, her foot caught the hurdle, tripping her.  She fell, quickly recovered and finished fourth.  Experts say that she would have set a World Record had she stayed on her feet.  That stumble just fortified her resolve to return in 4 years to the next Olympic Games.  Gail won the Gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in this event, as well as defending her 100 meter sprint Gold medal.  She also won another Gold Medal as part of the 4x100 meter sprint relay team.  Later Gail competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic games. 

In looking back on her accomplishments, Gail said, “Looking back, I'm so proud to have gone to five Olympics - I believe only three other Americans have achieved that. My true gold medal, though, is my daughter, Karsen. And I have a wonderful husband, Mike. I'd always wanted to be a teacher, and I feel I am now. The world is my classroom - my story can surely help and educate people.”
Personally, I think she’s right; we can all learn a lot from Gail.  She struggled for more than 2 years with a debilitating untreated disease when she had expected to be competing athletically.  She relied on God, praying for help in her recovery and in retaining her feet when they were at risk of amputation.  She rebuilt her health and physical stamina to win several gold medals in her chosen sport.  She exhibited faith and courage in dealing with her setbacks.  Additionally, Gail understands the importance of family!  We can all use that example in our lives!

Sources:

“Gail Devers.” Wikipedia Web. 30 July 2012.
Jackson, Jamie.  “Triumph and Despair.  Gail Devers: 'A Girl Asked What Was Wrong With Me. She Said I Looked Like a Monster.'  Her Hair Fell Out, Her Skin Hung Off Her Face and Then, When She Began Radiation Therapy for a Thyroid Disease, the American Sprinter Was Told She Might Lose Her Feet. Within Two Years She Was Back and Winning Olympic Gold.”  The Observer 31 March 2007:  n. pag. Web. 31 July 2012.
Moore, Kenny.  “Gail Force:  Driven by a Vision, Gail Devers Made an Amazing Comeback from a Crippling Illness to Win Olympic Gold.”  Sports Illustrated, 10 May 1993: n. page. Web. 30 July 2012.

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