by JAMES HENRY
ATLANTA – Incredibly gracious, one of the first things Gail Devers did was thank the volunteers at the BB&T Atlanta Open exhibit.
The tennis tournament’s display, featuring pins, uniforms, a torch and more, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Devers praised the event’s 400 volunteers and joked about being a ball kid, having to quickly run across the tennis court and retrieve the yellow balls.
“I’d have to use (starting) blocks,” she laughed.
Of course, it’s a task where Devers would easily excel. She is, after all, the “Fastest Woman in the World,” winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals for the 100-meter sprint in 1992 and 1996.
Devers also collected gold in 1996 as a part of America’s 4×100-meter relay team.
“People talk about patriotism and all this, but when you actually hear your national anthem, there is no greater feeling in the world,” she said, reminiscing about her time on the Olympic awards podium as she received her medals.
“You think about all those people who have fought for our freedom, who’ve lost legs and limbs, just so we could do what we do,” she said.
“To stand on that podium and hear that national anthem for something that I’ve done for myself and for my country, there’s no greater feeling.”
But winning gold wasn’t Devers’ specific dream. She simply wanted to do the best she could.
That’s what she wrote on sticky notes and pieces of paper that are still bundled and kept with her medals today.
“I set realistic goals for things I want to accomplish. I actually write them down,” she said. “Going to the Olympics and representing my country to the best of my ability was what I wrote. I didn’t write, ‘Get a gold medal.’”
She also signs the notes, affirming the extent of her commitment.
“That means I’m going to give my 100 percent and a little oomph, so if that comes out that’s a gold medal, I’m gonna take it,” she said.
Winning isn’t everything, as long as you give it your all, Devers advised.
In 1992 at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, she was leading and seemed on her way to a gold-medal finish in the final of the 100-meter hurdles, but fell over the final hurdle and stumbled to fifth place.
“In that race, I still represented myself and my country to the best of my ability,” she said. “I was very successful, because success is defined by you.”
That’s a life lesson she now is teaching her daughters, Karsen and Legacy.
Devers noted she, somewhat ironically, is known as a hurdler. While she has numerous world championships and previously held an American record in the hurdles, she does not have an Olympic medal for hurdling.
“I used to say I’m a sprinter that happens to have to go over some hurdles,” she said.
“When I look back through the Olympics, somebody who’s not a sprinter won back-to-back gold medals in the 100 meters and took the title of ‘Fastest Woman in the World,’ so it’s not what other people believe.
“I tell my girls that all the time, ‘I could care less what other people believe about you. What do you want to do? And what do you believe you can do?’”
When she was younger, Devers’ nickname was “Stormy,” for gale force winds, a play on her first name.
“What force means to me is focus on respect, commitment and excellence. So if I’m focusing on respect, I’m gonna respect myself first and I’m going to respect everybody else. There are certain things that I will not do for morals and integrity,” she said.
“And I’m committed. I’m committed to what I wrote on that paper and signed. And I’m committed for as long as I have to be, and what that leads to is excellence, and excellence is defined by me. Everybody wants to get across the finish line, but does everybody get across the finish line at the same time? No, but everybody is a winner by their effort. It’s what you put into it.”
Devers said she is a fan of all sports, watching a lot of different competitions through live online streaming.
“The reason athletics, to me, is important is because it shapes you as a person. You get to learn a lot about yourself, you’re tougher than you thought you were. You learn discipline. You learn that never-give-up spirit or attitude. You learn that when the chips are down, you find a way to keep going,” she said.
“You set goals for yourself. You work as a team. You take that to any arena in life and you’ll be successful, just following that same floorplan.”
And, yes, Devers still has her signature long fingernails.
They initially came as the result of a contest her father devised to get her to stop biting her nails as a 7-year-old child.
“I used to bite them like it was food,” she laughed.
She then grew them during her well-publicized plight with Graves' disease. She was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, where the thyroid gland is overactive, in 1990, after struggling for years with unanswered health problems.
Her hair started falling out, her weight plummeted and, at times, she could barely move.
As long as they didn’t break, her long nails symbolized her recovering health as she underwent radioactive iodine treatment, followed by thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
“It was a sign to me that I’m going to be OK,” she said.
Devers is a testament to never giving up.
“For me, what I take from everything I’ve gone through is belief. It doesn’t matter what other people believe about you. It’s what you believe about yourself and what you’re willing to work for and work towards,” she said.
“I don’t take anything for granted. I feel blessed to have been able to go to five Olympic Games. That was not promised.”
As an Olympic sprinter, she added, four years of training comes down to just an 11-second race.
Citing her grandmother, who lived to 98, Devers remains focused on wellness and inspiring others to also live healthy lives.
The day of her afternoon meet-and-greet at the tennis tournament, she arrived in Atlanta at 2 a.m. from a national health and fitness competition at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
The first people to get her autograph at the BB&T Atlanta Open waited in line two hours in advance to make sure they didn’t miss the opportunity with the three-time Olympic champion.
“It’s about being active, having fun,” the 49-year-old said. “It doesn’t have to be that you’ve got to go out there and compete like you’re trying to be an Olympian.
“I’ve passed that point, but health and wellness is still important to me, so I’m going to be fit for life.”
Photos by James Henry for Onthegotennis