- Erin Strout, Contributor, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
At age 45, three-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers is still sprinting and hurdling nearly every day. But her venue of choice is no longer the track -- it's the backyard of her home in the outskirts of Atlanta, where she often participates in rousing games of tag with her kids.
Since retiring from competition in 2007, Devers has replaced speed workouts and weight-lifting sessions with outdoor games, bike rides, walks and hikes. Her training partners include her husband, Mike Phillips, daughters Karsen, 7, and Legacy, 4, and the four-legged "baby" of the family, Jasmine, a 2-year-old Yorkie-Poodle.
"We go old-school during the summer, like swimming or setting up lemonade stands," Devers says. "I try to teach my kids to make their own fun. We're loving life."
While most of her friends' children are high schoolers, Devers says she's "just getting started" on the parenthood track.
"I was a little busy when they all started having kids," Devers says with a laugh.
Back then, Devers was a dominant force on the international track and field scene, claiming the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters in 1992 and 1996. (Her combined margin of victory in those two photo-finish finals: one one-hundredth of a second.) In addition to her victories in the 100 meters, one of the marquee events of the Summer Games, she also collected gold as a part of the U.S.'s victorious 4x100-meter relay team in 1996.
Devers' successes were even more impressive given that they came after her well-publicized battle with Graves' disease. She began showing symptoms of the autoimmune disorder, where the thyroid gland is overactive, when she was training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but it wasn't until 1990 that she was diagnosed with Graves'. Her hair fell out in clumps, her weight dropped dramatically and she found herself barely able to move, at times reduced to crawling from her bed to the bathroom.
The amputation of Devers' feet was raised as a possibility, until doctors discovered the blood blisters forming on them were a temporary side effect of the radioactive iodine treatment she was undergoing. Eventually, her health began to improve. And just 19 months after the diagnosis, she was staring up at the JumboTron in Barcelona's Olympic Stadium, watching the replay of the blanket finish in the 100 meters.
"It felt like we were standing there for an eternity while they were trying to figure out who won," Devers says of that experience, which she considers one of her favorite Olympic memories. "I was like a deer in headlights when I heard my name. I took off running my victory lap and the cameraman had to tell me to slow down."
She hardly slowed down for the next 15 years. Devers went on to win two more Olympic gold medals, plus eight total individual world titles across four events -- the outdoor 100 meters and 100-meter hurdles, and the indoor 60 meters and 60-meter hurdles. Her career ended at the 2007 Millrose Games in New York, where she won the 60-meter hurdles as a 40-year-old mother.
Despite the myriad championship victories, many track fans wonder whether Devers rues the fact that she never won an Olympic medal in her primary event, the 100-meter hurdles. (In Barcelona, she was leading the final but fell over the final hurdle and stumbled to fifth place. In Atlanta, she finished fourth, one one-hundredth of a second out of the medals. In Sydney, where she was struggling with a hamstring injury, she stopped midway through her semifinal race.)
"I always did my best on the day," Devers says of those results. "There was never a race that I didn't give it everything I had, so I don't have any regrets about how it turned out. I was blessed with a long career where I won gold medals for myself and my country. Nothing stands out as a disappointment."
And while Devers still has an eye on today's crop of competitors -- she will attend the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, which begin later this week in Eugene, Ore. -- her attention these days is set squarely on raising her own children, as well as giving motivational speeches to groups of all kinds across the country.
Her husband refers to her as "Ms. PTA," in reference to the copious amounts of time she commits to volunteering at the local elementary school, helping out in classrooms and organizing fund-raisers. Devers says she feels an obligation to lend a hand in overcrowded classrooms where some students may fall behind without extra attention.
"There are so many budget cuts that there might be up to 30 kids in a classroom. I believe that if I have the time, I should do my part to help," she says. "And if I decide to do something, I don't give less than 110 percent to it. I am there so much, some of the kids think I am a teacher."
While Devers may not be a certified teacher, she takes the role of educator seriously, whether it's speaking about Graves' disease or teaching people of all ages how to set worthwhile goals. She has even coached football players for the NFL scouting combine.
"A lot of them have been drafted," she says. "I love teaching them how to put their bodies in a position for speed. They call me Mama Gail."
The maternal moniker is a fitting one for a woman who has fully transferred the energy she once put into her athletic career to her family life. Gone are the exceptionally long and loudly decorated fingernails that were her trademark when she was a competitor -- they're impractical for the jobs, such as painting her parents' house, that make up her daily routine. And her hair has been cut short ("After I had kids, it was always in a ponytail, so what's the point?"). But while she might no longer look like exactly like the Olympic champion her fans remember, she still knows the motivational power of her gold medals.
"Accolades and trophies are given to inspire others," she says. "I believe I was blessed with such success so that I can touch lives and make a difference for other people."