Athletics: Age the least of barriers for peerless Devers

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The Independent Online

There was a familiar golden glint in the hurdling stride of Gail Devers at the Letzigrund Stadion in Zurich on Friday night. After six weeks away from life in the fast lanes, the American returned as favourite for the 100m hurdles at the World Championships in Paris next week.

Brigitte Foster might lead the world rankings for the event in 2003, but Devers left the Jamaican trailing in her wake in the Weltklasse Golden League meeting. Her winning time, 12.50sec, was just 0.01sec slower than her best for the year.

Devers is 36. In Paris she stands to become the oldest woman to win a world title; Helena Fibingerova was 34 when she won the shot in 1983. She also stands to become the first veteran athlete to win a world title; the athletics age-grouping applies to women over 35 and men over 40.

The preacher's daughter from Seattle, who also contests the 100m in Paris, already has five World Championship gold medals: three for the 100m hurdles, one for the 100m and one for the 4 x 100m relay. No woman has a more glittering collection. Marion Jones also has five.

Devers, twice an Olympic champion at 100m, is the great survivor of track and field in more ways than one. Back in 1990, she was within two days of having her feet amputated. Unknown to her doctor, she was suffering from Graves' Disease, the life-threatening thyroid condition.

"When it was finally diagnosed, I was two weeks away from being cancerous," she reflected. "They had told me it was athlete's foot, but I could tell there was more to it.

"My weight ballooned from 95lb to 137lb within a week. I suffered memory loss, migraine, loss of vision, and I had three menstrual cycles every month. The condition went undiagnosed for two-and-a-half years. I got blood blisters on my feet and I was having to crawl about on my hands and knees. The pain was excruciating. I was told later that if I had walked on my feet for two more days they would have been amputated."

Eventually, a cyst the size of a child's fist was removed from Devers' thyroid. Within a year she was competing on the track, taking the 100m hurdles silver medal at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. Twelve years later, the veteran is still a global medal contender. "I think what keeps me in it is the pursuit of the elusive," Devers said. "I'm still trying to run a perfect race."