Back on Track: 3 Time Olympic Gold Medalist Gail Devers' Story

By Bryan Campbell

Blink and you just might miss the fastest woman in the world. But you’ll never forget her champion’s smile, and her signature fingernails.

Gail Devers became a household name during the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. The young American sprinter raced into our hearts with one of the greatest finishes in Olympic history—a photo finish in the 100-meter sprint finals. Five women finished within 0.06 seconds of each other. Gail won the gold medal and the title “Fastest Woman in the World.”

People around the world instantly recognized her for her huge smile and her even bigger fingernails.

But just two years before that race, it seemed like Gail’s racing days were over.

Gail Devers was a rising star in the track and field community. After a successful college career, she set her sights on the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But as she prepared for the games, she noticed that something wasn’t right with her body. She often felt run-down, like she had been “running in neutral” all day long.

She experienced other problems, too. She was losing weight fast.

“At first, I thought this was cute, but after a while, it went beyond being cute,” says Devers.

She competed in the 1988 Olympics but did not win a medal. After the games, her health continued to get worse. At one point, she thought about giving up racing altogether.

“I went to several doctors, and none of them could tell me what was wrong,” says Devers. “At some point it stopped being about competing, and it started being about getting my life back.”

Finally, after three years of unanswered questions, Gail got a simple test called a TSH. The test checks the function of the thyroid. As it turns out, she had a condition called Graves’ disease.

Graves’ disease is a form of overactive thyroid disease. It is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body’s immune system is actually attacking the thyroid, prompting it to produce more thyroid hormone than is normal.

Thyroid hormone acts as a kind of regulator for metabolism. If your body doesn’t have enough thyroid hormone, you can feel sluggish and weak. In Gail’s case, with too much thyroid hormone in her system, her body was running on overdrive all the time.

She received radioiodine [RAY-dee-o-EYE-uh-dine] treatment, which slowed down her thyroid. Because her thyroid now cannot make enough thyroid hormone, she is on a daily thyroid hormone replacement regimen. She takes one pill every day to keep her thyroid levels in check. And she makes sure to see her endocrinologist [en-doh-kri-NAH-low-jist] every six months to make sure that her levels are good.

The treatment got Gail back in the race.

“It was like I got my life back,” says Devers. “I was back to battling my opponents, not my own body.”

And with careful monitoring from her doctor, she started training again. And less than two years later, she was standing on the podium, accepting her first gold medal.

Yes, first.

Four years later, at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, she took home not one, but two more gold medals, one for the 100 meter sprint, and one for the 4×100 meter relay. Again, Gail was a household name. Those fingernails became known around the world!

But just what was it that led the fastest woman in the world to grow those fingernails? The answer provides a key to understanding her personal struggle.

“I grow my fingernails for three years, because that’s how long I went undiagnosed,” says Devers. “Every three years I cut them and start growing them again.”

Gail’s signature fingernails are a message to people everywhere that they don’t have to live with a thyroid disorder. If you are feeling sluggish or run down, if you are experiencing weight gain or weight loss that you can’t explain, or if you are feeling any of the other symptoms of thyroid dysfunction, then you should think about getting your thyroid checked.

Today, Gail is running a new race. She’s no longer competing in track competitions. But she is still chasing young ladies around. Today, Gail is living in Atlanta, site of her 1996 Olympic victories, with her husband and two young daughters.

“I haven’t slowed down at all.”

And that’s the message that Gail still takes with her wherever she goes. She’s passionate about making sure people understand the signs and symptoms of thyroid disease, and that they understand proper treatment.

“I get my thyroid hormone levels checked every six months, and I make sure my levels are right,” says Devers. “I don’t plan on slowing down again for a long time.”

To hear more from Gail Devers about the importance of thyroid health, Click Here