Healthy Body

Graves’ Disease was the Biggest Hurdle Olympic Athlete Gail Devers Faced—Now She’s Sharing Her Story

Emily Laurence

Photos: Provided; Art: W+G Creative

Graves’ disease is an immune system disorder that causes an overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism). It is the most prevalent form of hyperthyroidism in the United States—affecting around 1 in 200 people—and women are seven to eight times more likely to develop the condition. 

To raise awareness, three-time Olympic gold medal-winning track and field athlete, Gail Devers, shares her experience receiving a diagnosis. Devers knows first-hand the difficulties that come with advocating for yourself. She also understands the power of getting answers so you can get your life back on track. She hopes others with Graves’ disease will find empowerment through accurate information and quality care. 

I was already a record-breaking competitive athlete by the time I was in college at UCLA. When I was 19 years old, I broke the American record for the 100-meter hurdles. I was on my way to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, and I was expected to win. This was my moment to shine—but the bottom fell out.

I’ve never performed worse than I did during that Olympic semifinal. I ran slower than I did during my first 100-meter hurdle attempt. I didn't even qualify. Instead of staying in South Korea, I flew home completely defeated.

When I got back, my health continued to deteriorate. I was chronically tired. I had regular migraines, and I lost a lot of weight. My hair fell out in clumps, and my fingernails became brittle. I had trouble with my eyes, too. They were painful, bulging, irritated, and dry—I couldn’t close them fully when I slept.

On a shopping trip, I looked in the mirror and was taken aback by how baggy the clothes looked on my small frame. I knew there was something wrong, but doctor after doctor told me my symptoms resulted from my intense athletic training. I repeatedly heard, “It's because you train too hard.”

If I’m honest, I felt like I was going crazy. I started to think that I was just a washed-up athlete, but I would look in the mirror at my thinning hair and dark circles under my eyes. I knew I wasn't making it up. Something was wrong.

My athletic career came to a screeching halt. I felt like I had no idea who I was anymore. I covered the mirrors in my house because I couldn't stand to look at myself. When I met up with my friends, they'd ask if I was on drugs. To avoid their questions, I stopped leaving the house. For two-and-a-half years, I stayed inside completely depressed.

The long-awaited answer—and more questions

One day, an old team physician came to see me. I thought we were going to catch up, but she started to examine me. "There's a serious problem with your thyroid," she told me after putting away her stethoscope. I'd never even heard of a thyroid, but she encouraged me to see a specialist. When I walked into his office two days later, he said, "I can tell just by looking at you that you have Graves’ disease."

After more than two years, I finally had a name for my symptoms. Still, I had no idea what Graves’ disease was—or what a thyroid was for that matter. I learned very quickly: The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. It produces hormones (triiodothyronine and thyroxine) that have an enormous effect on overall health. Graves’ disease is a form of hyperthyroidism, which means the thyroid gland produces too much thyroxine. When that happens, it can lead to all the symptoms I was experiencing.

Now that I finally had a diagnosis, I started taking medication daily, and my symptoms subsided drastically. It was almost unbelievable. I will take medication for the rest of my life, but it’s a small price to pay. Finally, I had enough stamina to start training again.

A major comeback

I spent two-and-a-half years after my diagnosis getting my life old back. I started to leave the house and see my friends. I started training with my coach, slowly regaining the speed I had lost. Eventually, I started to visualize myself at the Olympic Games. When I got there in 1992, I didn't falter.

Even though I qualified, I was not projected to win. When you're expected to win, you get placed in lanes four, five, or six. I was in lane two. But something incredible happened: I did win. After I crossed the finish line, I ran another lap—a victory lap. At one point, while I was running, one of the camera guys shouted at me, "Slow down, and savor the moment!" But I was savoring the moment. I knew exactly what it was like to have all of this taken away from me. I did not take a single step for granted. Even now, when I think back to that moment, I visualize it in slow motion. It meant so much to me.

Winning advice

Graves’ disease turned my world upside-down, and it wasn't right again until I had a proper diagnosis. That's why I tell anyone who is chronically tired, regularly experiencing migraines, or losing their hair to speak with an endocrinologist. I also tell people—if you are at risk for Graves’ disease—focus on your eye health. Up to 50 percent of people with Graves’ will develop Thyroid Eye Disease (TED), a separate but related condition that requires additional care.

For more than 30 years now, I’ve been living with and managing my condition. But in all those years, not a single doctor mentioned that my eye-related symptoms were separate from Graves’ disease. This is something I wish I’d known all those years ago. I still struggle with red, irritated eyes, pain, and light sensitivity. If you have Graves’ disease and notice changes in your eyes, consider seeing someone who specializes in TED, like an oculoplastic surgeon or neuro-ophthalmologist. To learn more, I recommend you visit Focus OnTed.

Getting a diagnosis for any disease is scary—trust me, I know—but what’s most important is that you be your own health advocate. No one understands your body better than you, and if you know there's something wrong, find a doctor that listens to you. Overcoming Graves’ disease was the greatest hurdle I've ever faced. But you know what? I did it. I’ve caught up to the “old Gail.” Now, I want to help others clear that hurdle.

As told to Emily Laurence

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