The starter’s pistol sounded and I exploded out of the starting blocks. I pushed myself down the track and managed to clear the first hurdle, then the next, forcing myself to jump again and again. It took every ounce of strength I had just to get across the finish line, gasping for breath.
It was early fall of 1988. A few months earlier I had run in the 1988 Olympics and now was back in school at the University of California in Los Angeles, training with one of the top track coaches in the country, Bobby Kersee. In the past I’d practically flown down the track, setting records as I soared over hurdlers and races like a comet in the 100-meter dash. But in recent weeks I’d been feeling sick and exhausted and I didn’t need my coach’s stopwatch to tell me my practice times were getting slower and slower. What was the matter with me?
Finally I went for a checkup. “It’s been an exciting year,” the doctor said. “You’re probably just tired. Try to get some rest.” Later in the locker room, as I bent to take off my running shoes, I noticed my fingernails were spitting. I’d been losing patches of hair, and my skin was dry and flaky. I was only 22 years old but it seemed like my whole body was falling apart.
“Hey, Gail, want to go to the library to study?” a teammate called, slinging her gym bag over her shoulder. “Another time,” I said. I just wanted to go home and relax. When I got to my house in Palmdale, though, I didn’t even have the energy to watch one of the I Love Lucy tapes I’d collected over the years. I just fell asleep on the couch.
Bobby worried that he was doing something wrong. “Maybe the pressure is getting to you,” he said.
The only thing wrong was that nobody knew exactly what was wrong. None of the doctors I saw or tests I had could pinpoint what the problem was. Was I diabetic? No. Did I have allergies? Apparently not. Still I was having headaches and dizzy spells, the vision in my left eye was blurry, and I was losing weight.
By the time the spring of 1989 rolled around, I felt totally out of gas, both in the classroom and on the track. One night, as I was brushing my hair in the bathroom, big clumps fell in the sink. Fighting back tears, I decided to call my mom.
All my life, whenever I was down, I talked to my mother. She and Dad lived in San Diego, where I was raised. Mom called me Star, because she said I shone as bright as the brightest star in the sky. Dad’s nickname was more mischievous. He said I reminded him of gale-force winds that stirred things up – so he called me Stormy. I had nicknames for them, too. Mom was Mi-ma, Daddy was Pa-pa.
I dialed home. “Baby girl, how are things going?” Mom’s voice was like a hug. “What did the new doctor say?”
“He couldn’t find anything wrong either,” I said. “Mi-ma, do you think people are wondering if it’s all in my head?”
“I know what’s in your head, and it’s all fine,” Mom said. “You’re my Star, and always remember that your daddy and I are your best friends.” She paused then repeated what she’d said to me ever since I could remember. “But baby girl, never forget that God is your best friend of all.”
In May 1999, as rotten as I felt, I graduated from UCLA with a degree in sociology. By that point I hardly had the energy to go to the track at all. Eventually I stopped running altogether.
The summer went by in slow motion. I’ve always loved kids and dreamed of being a teacher and opening a daycare center someday. So one afternoon I dragged myself over to a local grade school to work out with some kids during their gym class.
A little girl tugged at my T-shirt. “What’s wrong with your face?” she asked innocently. She didn’t mean any harm, it was the sort of thing kids say, but at home that night when I looked in the mirror I was shocked. My skin was flaky and rough and mottled with patches of white.
I got some bed sheets and draped one over the mirror. I went to every mirror in every room and did the same. I just couldn’t stand the sight of myself.
I stopped coming out of the house. The most exercise I got was when I staggered into my laundry room and crammed dirty clothes into the washing machine. One morning I bent to pick up a towel and found myself looking right into a crawl space and storage area behind the door. I could go in there and nobody would find me. I crawled inside, curled up and went to sleep.
I felt so overwhelmed and low that I sometimes went back to the comfort of that storage space and just lay down. One evening, after a particularly long nap, I woke up disoriented and depressed.
My hand shaking, I pulled back a curtain. Outside it was pitch dark. Staring out the window again I saw high in the velvet sky a single gleaming star. Star. I might have felt as low and as dark and as weak as I ever would, but I was somebody’s Star. My mom’s words came back to me as clear as if she was sitting beside me on the bed. “Baby girl, in the midnight hours, remember God is always there. God is your best friend.”
God. As a child I’d never hesitated to ask his help. I knew I had to reach out for him now if I had any hope of surviving. I got down on my knees and prayed with a desperate urgency. God, I know you’re there. Whatever happens, I trust in you. And even though things may get worse before they get better, I trust that they will get better. Amen.
I slept peacefully that night. The next day I watched a video of one of my races, to feel connected to that part of my life again. As long as I had the TV on – hmmm, there was I Love Lucy. I put another tape into the VCR. On the screen appeared Lucy Ricardo doing her commercial for Vitameatavegamin. “Do you poop out at parties?” she asked. “Are you unpopular? Take Vitameatavegamin.” With each spoonful, Lucy, who didn’t know the tonic contained alcohol, got loopier and loopier. For the first time in months, I burst out laughing. Lighten up, God seemed to be telling me.
From that point on, I prayed and watched I Love Lucy every day. It was hard to focus on my own misery when Lucy and Ethel were scrambling to keep up with the assembly line at the chocolate factory or trying to pass Lucy off as a showgirl at The Tropicana. The more I laughed at all the stuff they did, the more life seemed worth it no matter how hard it got. I can get through this, I though.
I couldn’t hide in my house forever. One day I pulled on my sweats and went over to the UCLA campus. The fresh air felt wonderful, alive. Looking inside a classroom, I saw one of my team physicians giving a nutrition seminar and she signaled me to wait. After the class, she gave me a hug, looked at me closely, and took out her stethoscope. Here we go again, I thought. Carefully she felt my neck. “I think you might have a problem with your thyroid,” she said.
Thyroid? I didn’t have a clue about what that was. The doctor sent me for something she called a TSH test and I took the results to another physician, who diagnosed me with Graves’ disease.
“It’s also called hyperthyroidism,” the doctor later explained. “The symptoms vary from person to person. That’s why it’s so difficult to diagnose.”
I would probably have to take medication all my life, be careful about what I ate, and get enough rest. But as least I knew what was wrong with me. I was doing something about it!
Slowly but surely my strength returned. One morning after I washed my face, I gently touched my cheeks. They felt smooth, and I hadn’t noticed any hair in the sink lately. Okay, God, maybe it’s time. I reached out toward my mirror, took the edge of the bed sheet and pulled it off the glass. I drew a deep breath and looked. Mi-ma’s Star was back.
The starter’s pistol sounded. It was June 1992, at the United States Championships and Olympic trails held in New Orleans. I exploded out of the blocks, attacked the first hurdle – then pitched my body forward to clear the next. I finished first that day. In August I won a gold medal for the 100-meter sprint in the Olympics, and by the end of the year set a new American record in the hurdles. Some journalists said I was “the greatest comeback story in sports.”
I’d made a comeback all right. But it wasn’t so much athletic as spiritual. Good times may come and go but now I know I’ll get over the difficulties the same way I get over hurdles on the track – one at a time and pressing forward. What I’m even more sure of today is that with God as your best friend, you can and will get through anything. When you fall down, you will get up.
~contributed by Gail Devers