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Olympic champion: 'In life, there is always a hurdle'

By Trisha Henry, CNN
updated 7:07 AM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
  • Gail Devers was diagnosed with Graves' disease in 1990
  • She nearly lost her feet but went on to become an Olympic champion
  • Devers says her disease "made me into the person I am"

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week we meet Gail Devers, who battled Graves' disease and nearly lost her feet before going on to become a three-time Olympic champion in track and field.

(CNN) -- Gail Devers is a three-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field. But when she was in college, a diagnosis of Graves' disease, an immune system disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones, posed one of her biggest hurdles.

CNN: You were diagnosed with Graves' disease in 1990. What happened leading up to your diagnosis?

Gail Devers: I was in college at UCLA. Things were going very well; I had set an American record. Then, all of sudden, within a month, in my recollection, things started to fall apart.

My hair started falling out, and at that time, I had long hair. It was curly and doing its thing, and it started falling out. I had always had long nails unless I cut them; they started breaking. I couldn't figure out what was going on.

The weirdest part for me was losing weight. My normal running weight at that time was between 119 and 120 (pounds).

... At my worst -- and I say at my worst because I stopped getting on the scale because I just couldn't stand the way I looked -- at my worst, I was under like 85 pounds. Then it was like, "There is definitely something wrong."

I had made the 1988 Olympic team, and then the bottom fell out, is what I say. I couldn't run anywhere close to where I had ran just two months prior to that, so definitely there is a problem. When I got to the race in the 100-meter hurdles, I ran slower than the first time I ever ran when I ever stepped on the track.

... There were no answers for almost 2½ years, and it wasn't until 1990 (that I was diagnosed). I had even stopped going out of the house because I couldn't stand the way I looked. My face was breaking out; it had white or light spots all over. I had little to no hair, and nobody could tell me what was wrong.

I love kids and remember being at an event outside a little park, and a little kid walked by with their mom and said, "Mommy, what's wrong with her?"

That was the last time. I stopped going outside. I actually had covered up mirrors in my house because I didn't want to see myself. It wasn't a good time.

CNN: What inspired you to make it through being sick and return to running?

Devers: Although I got sidelined for three years, I figured ... I am going to figure this out go back out there. I still have that love and support from my coach and my family.

... (In) 1992, at the Olympic Games ... back then the heat of the race was lane 4, 5 and 6, so that lets you know what (was) thought about me in lane 2. I tell people, probably three people in the world thought I could do it. It's not what other people believe you can do; it's what you believe you can do. I honestly believe that everything that happened to me happened for a reason.

My feet were saved. I was supposed to go out and win. This was my way. I remember getting out. I felt I had a great start. I don't remember the middle. I remember getting to the end. ...

In my race, there's 10 hurdles, but in life, there is always a hurdle. There is always something you gotta get over, and it's what you do, you know.

Sometimes we fall, sometimes we stumble, but we can't stay down. We can't allow life to beat us down. Everything happens for a reason, and it builds character in us, and it tells us what we are about and how strong we really are when we didn't think we could be that strong.

You have to get up. You have to keep going. You have to try harder, and if somebody else falls down, you have to pick them up and carry them with you. ... Life (is about) service and what can I do to help that next person who is struggling? What is it that happened to me in my life that I can share with somebody else, just to help them make it through?

I am very thankful that I have lived the life I have lived. I am thankful for my Graves' disease, and I tell people, if I had my whole life to live over, I would have it, because it has really made me into the person that I am.

I feel like I am stronger. There is nothing I don't feel like I can do if I try. ... I take medication every day for the rest of my life, and I just feel like it's a small price to pay to have my life.

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