Interview by Jessica Daniel
Three time Olympic gold medalist, Gail Devers talks with Young Urban Voices about her start in the Olympics, her battle with Graves Disease and how she was able to overcome her illness to accomplish her number one goal, to be the best in the world. Devers also talks about her new book, “My Life in Story: Stronger.”
Young Urban Voices: You are a three time Olympic gold medalist who has overcome many obstacles to get to where you are today. First off, how did you get started running in the Olympics?
Gail Devers: I started running track and field, in general, when I was fifteen, in my sophomore year of high school. It kind of progressed from there and each year I would try a different event. I started doing distance and then I went from distance to the sprints. I was able to get a scholarship to college. I went to UCLA and from there I met my coach Bob Kersee. He saw potential in me, and we worked extremely hard. I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person where I set goals for myself on things that I want to accomplish. I set a goal for myself that I wanted to be the best in the world. It was not easy but it was something that was definitely rewarding.
Young Urban Voices: Who was your biggest inspiration?
Gail Devers: I would say, growing up, in seventh grade every year we would go to the library and we had to pick out a book. I picked a Wilma Rudolph book one time, actually it fell and I picked it up, just reading her story and learning about the things she went through with her Polio and everything. She became a real inspiration to me later on in my career when I had to go through my Graves Disease.
Young Urban Voices: What was the biggest challenge you had to face?
Gail Devers: My biggest challenge would be the Graves Disease. You know, being an athlete thinking you know your body and now all of a sudden there’s something going on with your body, and you don’t know what it is. For me, it became the biggest challenge because it took them three years to diagnose me where I was under 87 or 86 pounds, my hair was falling out, and what people were calling my trademark nails were breaking, and usually my nails don’t break unless I do something crazy. Just going through all of that and facing one day to the next, my eyes bulging out and going to the doctors not finding any answers was traumatic actually. During that, and being told waking up one day and having blisters on my feet and then being told that I came very close to having my feet amputated. As an athelete, as a runner it’s like your worst nightmare came true.
Young Urban Voices: How old were you when you were diagnosed with Graves Disease?
Gail Devers: I want to say 20, 19 or 20. It was that time when you’re supposed to have your whole world to look forward to when mine was crumbling in front of my face, but I will say going through what I went through with Graves Disease made me a stronger person. I take medications every day for the rest of my life in order to live. When I thought that this is it, you know, that I’ve done all I can, somehow I found the strength to keep going. My book is called My Life in Story: Stronger, and it’s called Stronger for a reason because everything that has happened in my life, if we think about our life’s journey, everything that happens can be a lesson, good or bad, and I draw strength by it. And it made me into the person I am today where I feel that if it is something that I have to do, I don’t care how tough it is, somehow I’m going to find that extra toughness to get through it.
Young Urban Voices: What gave you the strength to continue to compete in the Olympics?
Gail Devers: My goals. Like I said, I’m very goal-oriented. If there is something I want to do, I write it down, and it becomes like my personal daily law that I look at and have placed it in several places in my house as a constant reminder to me of what it is that I need to accomplish, and I actually sign it as if I’m signing a contract because for me it’s like your word is bond. And if I sign it to say that I’m actually committed to this, then I’m committed, regardless of how long it’s going to take. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but it means that I’m all in, and I will give 110%. So that became my inspiration to get back out there and finally seeing my dreams realized. They got sidelined for a little while with the Graves Disease, but they [my dreams] didn’t die.
Young Urban Voices: Tell me about your new book.
Gail Devers: Well, I’m excited about it. It’s my first one. For this one, it’s about my life, but I didn’t want it to be, what I call, a boring autobiography. I do a lot of speaking engagements, and when I go to speaking engagements, regardless of the audience, I always open it up for questions and answers. A lot of people come up with very interesting questions, and it is kind of like interview style. For me, if someone asks, “Have you always been fast?” Then it makes me reflect back on my childhood, the story I was told, and the scenes I remember about my childhood. So the book is written in a back and forth kind of way where somebody asks me a question and it kicks back to 1996 at the Olympic games or even 1966 when I was born, and I tell a story about that and then it comes back to the present. So it’s in the past and the present, but it gives you my life in story form. And overall, it’s about being stronger.
Young Urban Voices: What do you hope for people who read your book to gain from?
Gail Devers: Inside about me, what I’m truly about, the morals and the values I have, and the way I try to live my life. Hopefully, I never say I want somebody to be like me. If somebody says they want to be like me, I would say that means you want to be the best you that you can be. I talk about just, my take on life. I tell you about my story, but I also tell you about my take on life, just everything in general about being the best person that you can be. You have one body, one blueprint, nobody else is like you, so it’s what you make of yourself and what you make of your life. The choices that you make in your life, people always talk about being role models, I think everybody is a role model, everybody, I don’t care who you are, there’s always somebody watching you. You may not know who it is, but there is somebody watching, so you have to make choices in your life to decide what type of role model you want to be, and I always want to be positive, and I have kids. I also work with tons of kids every day, so the example we’re setting, what we’re showing them, what we’re telling them, hopefully they match up.
People say, “Do as I say not as I do” no, do as I do because that is what a leader does. A leader shows by example that this is the way to be, this is the way you conduct yourself, your life. Think about the choices you have to make in life, the consequences of your choices, of your decisions before you make them. I talk about, when I go to talk with kids, on what it means to be successful. Everybody wants to be successful, but what does that really mean? I think we in society get so…I’m very thankful for my gold medals, my accomplishments that I’ve been able to do, but my falling over the hurdles in 1992, to me, is just as successful as winning the gold medal. Why? Because I gave it my all. It’s not always about winning, it’s not always about owning a company, or making the most money. It’s about being the best that you can be. If you end up on a starting line, everybody is not going to come across the finish line at the same time, everybody is not going to be first place, but everybody can be winners by their effort. That’s the message that I want to instill in definitely our future, which is our youth, but also some of the adults need to understand that, too, because our attitudes reflect on those who are looking at us.
Young Urban Voices: What advice would you give people young or old who may be struggling with some type of illness?
Gail Devers: Keep your head up. Stay strong. In life, everybody has to face an obstacle. Obstacles could be challenges as far as financial challenges, illnesses, sickness in your own family whether it may be you or a loved one, or it could be bullying at school, just a number of things from A to Z. Things not working out the way we want them to, we just have to keep our heads up and stay prayerful. We have to work. We can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. I could even use my Graves Disease, it took three years, but I wasn’t sitting around going woe is me. I was going from doctor to doctor trying to find an answer. We almost have to be our own advocate and say hey, I’m going to keep pushing. I remember hearing when I was young, push. Pray until something happens. Well, I’m going to pray, I’m going to pull, I’m going to push. Be active, not reactive but proactive. You have to have that faith even if you may not see it, but you know it’s going to happen.
Young Urban Voices: What would you say to young people who aspire to make a difference and to follow their God-given purpose?
Gail Devers: I think when we follow what God has for us, He continues to bless us in other ways. My example, I guess, would be for myself where I always tell people I had wanted to be a teacher. If I had done it my way, I would have been in a classroom with 25 kids, and I would have been happy, but it would have been my way. But doing it God’s way, I have the world as my classroom. I travel the world where I constantly have a mic in my face, and it’s up to me in what I’m going to say, how I’m going to say it, and how I can help other people, how I can be a voice with my Graves Disease, with this illness, to be a voice to help someone. I would tell every person whether they’re young or old to stand for something.
For more information about Gail Devers and her new book “My Life in Story: Stronger” visit her on Facebook, Gail Devers Olympian, ImGailDevers on Twitter, and IMGAILDEVERS on Instagram.
Statement from Chelan Brown, Gail Dever’s publicist:
“The book will be released nationwide at most bookstores including Barnes & Noble in 1-27-15, and her book launch/author signing will be on 1-31-15 from 2-6 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in the Mall of Georgia.”