Olympic Champion Gail Devers’ Signature Long Nails Were a Symbol of Maintaining Her Health
By Christina Santi
When one thinks of Gail Devers, they may remember the long electric blue nails she showed off at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Apart from being a three-time Olympics gold medalist, Devers was also a representation for the Black women who spent hours in the nail salon picking the perfect color or using garlic nail treatments to help grow their nails. She showed us that women who looked like us could accomplish great things being our total selves.
I remember watching her and Flo-Jo on television as a young girl. They looked like all the Black women from inner-city neighbors who were my ideals. These women rocked large gold earrings, bright red lipstick, curly hair and nails with the freshest designs. It made me believe we could have more than what was offered within the 10-block radius of our neighborhoods. It created space for bigger dreams
The first time Devers won gold was at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. She qualified for the final of the 100 m, which ended in a photo finish that showed the track star beating out Jamaica’s Juliet Cuthbert by 0.06 seconds. It was a miraculous win for the 26-year-old, who sported short red nails to claim her victory because they had become brittle.
Two years prior Devers was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid. A disease doctors‘ thought would derail her promising track career. In 1985, while a student at UCLA, she broke the national record for 100-meter hurdles.
Devers went to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a fan favorite. While training for the event she began to feel unwell. She experienced mild hair loss and was sluggish. She was set to make her mark on the world. However, her times were off and she was eliminated in the semi-finals.
“I ran slower than the very first time I stepped on the track to run hurdles, which was in high school,” Dever said to BNC in June. “There [was] a problem because a couple of months prior in May, I had set an American record.”
But physicians told her the symptoms were a result of training too hard.
According to rarediseases.org, Graves’ disease affects about 3% of the world’s population. Other celebrities who have the disease include iconic broadcast personality Wendy Williams and hip hop superstar Missy Elliot. The autoimmune disorder affects women more than men with a 5-to-10 prevalence. The disease occurs all over the globe and although it usually develops more frequently in 40 to 60-year-olds, it can also affect children, adolescents and young adults. Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.
As an athlete, Devers was in tune with her body. She knew it was something more because her symptoms became worse. She experienced severe weight and hair loss and the skin on her face sagged. Her signature long nails— which she grew since childhood after a bet with her father to stop biting them— would not grow.
“Because I was losing so much weight [I] knew that there was something wrong,” the National Track and Field Hall of Famer said. “Usually, my fingernails are long. They were breaking and they wouldn’t grow.”
Devers spent close to three years going from doctor to doctor trying to get answers, through headaches, bulging eyes, insomnia and scaly skin. She became so insecure about the way she looked. The Olympian “covered all the mirrors” in her home. Devers remembers one instance in particular where she decided to stop going outside because how she looked “was scaring kids.” When she found out she was living with Graves’ disease, she said it was a relief.
“It was a godsend. Finally, somebody told me I’m not washed up because I had actually written a resignation letter to my coach,” she revealed. “It said, ‘I feel like I’m taking your time out here and I don’t want to do that. You got the Olympic Games coming up in ‘92 and I don’t want to mess with what you could be doing for other people.’”
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Her coach, Bob Kersee, would not let her quit. Just a year prior it was difficult for Devers to walk and doctors wanted to amputate her feet. But she began radiation treatment for the thyroid illness and reset her goals to returning to the track.
Yet, another odd set back was in her way. Devers refused to take the beta-blockers that would help ease the side effects of the radiation. The International Association of Athletics Federations deemed the drug illegal. If Devers was drugged tested and they found it in her body, she would be banned from competing. She made the decision to deal with the side effects in hopes to fulfill the goals she set for herself.
“Throughout all the stuff that I had to deal with, I was able to come back and get back on the track,” Devers said.
When she became healthier, she allowed herself to regain her identity by letting her nails grow. It was the one thing that reminded her of the old Gail and that connected her to her parents. Her father for creating a quirky way for her to break a nail-biting habit, and to align herself with her mother who had long nails.
“When I came back a part of me just mentally knowing that I was OK was to allow for my nails to grow for three years,” she revealed. “If they’d break, [I’d] have one little crazy nail and the rest of them were still long. I don’t care, you know, and I have like 9 coats of fingernail polish over, and that’s that was me.”
The long nails were also a sign that she was healthy. “The longer it takes me to paint my nails is a sign that I’m OK,” she expressed.
“When people like, ‘Oh my gosh, her nails look like talons.’ Yeah [they were.] Mentally it was a thing that let me know that Gail, you are OK. The longer they grow and as long as they’re continuing to grow, it’s going to take you longer to paint them. Longer for them to dry, but that means you’re OK. And if that means you’re OK, that means you can do anything that you want to do.”
Devers delivered on that promise to herself. After winning in 1992, a year later she won the 100 m at the 1993 World Championship. In the Atlanta 1996 Games, she defended her title and became the first woman since Wyomia Tyus to do so. In 2011, the UCLA alum was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. Two years later, she was awarded the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award.
Now, after living with Graves’ Disease for more than 30 years and still having eye-related issues, Devers has partnered with Horizon Therapeutics for Graves’ Disease Awareness Month to educate others. She wants to help those with the autoimmune disorder, and others who may notice the symptoms in people close to them.
Devers has been strong through it all and she has that same advice for the athletes preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In her mind, there is always room for a redemption story when someone has the will and faith. For athletes facing career-pausing moments like Sha’Carri Richardson— who continued the legacy of being a Black girl donning acrylics and being her full self on the track— she offers some advice.
Richardson, 21, tested positive for THC and accepted a one-month suspension, making her ineligible to participate in the upcoming Olympics. She had the potential to be the first American woman since Devers in 1996 to win the 100 m race.
“Come out of the dark spoke because everybody in life is going to be faced with challenges,” Devers said. “What do you do when you’re faced with a challenge? You have to realize that you have the strength to conquer it.”
Devers continues to conquer her Graves’ disease and uses it as a motivating factor to help others around her. Her tenacity, her willpower and her care for people shine as bright as her gold medals. She has no regrets about the path that brought her to this point.
“I want to touch somebody’s life and make a difference. I think everything happens for a reason. So, my Graves’ disease if I had to do my life over, I would ask for my Graves’ disease again… going through what I’ve gone through allows me to [tell others] you shouldn’t have to suffer.”
For more information Devers’ message about maintaining eye health and living with Graves’ disease check out FOCUSonTED.com.