Gail Devers knew at once that she had bound up her fate with a lunatic. It was the summer of 1984, and Gail was 17 years old, had won the 100 meters and the 100 hurdles and finished second in the long jump at the California high school track championships, and was headed to UCLA. "In my naiveté," she says, "I'd heard the new women's coach was a Mr. Robert Kersee, and—don't ask me how—I had the idea that he was an old white man. When I went to see the Olympic trials in the Coliseum, I got [sprinter] Valerie Brisco to point him out to me."
Kersee turned out to be 30, black, lean and so hot-eyed that he seemed wired. "He was easy to spot," says Devers, "because he was screaming at the top of his lungs at Jackie Joyner. I said, 'Uh-oh, maybe I can wait to meet him.' "
But Kersee found Devers and ordered her to immerse herself in watching the Los Angeles Olympics later that summer. Her talent was such, he sang, that she had to begin the mental transition from high school champion to world-class competitor. Her talent was such, he raved, that he could see her breaking the U.S. record in the 100-meter hurdles, that she would make the 1988 Olympic team, that she would be ready for gold in 1992.
Devers took a slow step back.
"She looked at me," Kersee says, "strangely."
"He had all these visions of years and years ahead," Devers says. "I could sec he was crazy."
Yet, exhibiting the forbearance that would be vital to our story, she was not repelled. She let the madman coach her. "Regardless of whether his predictions were going to turn out to be true or whether he was just trying to motivate me, I liked them," she says. "I hadn't run track until high school. I started as a distance runner. I hadn't had much coaching. So I thought that if he had all this faith in me, he'd coach me well. For quite a while Bobby believed in me more than I believed in myself."
"It may take awhile for the bulb to go on in Gail's head," says Kersee, "but once it does, and she sees what she can do, she's unstoppable." At UCLA, Devers cut her sprint and hurdle times inexorably, in each race fulfilling a Kersee prediction. Light flooded in. Belief made her faster. She set a U.S. hurdles record (12.61 seconds) in May 1988, as a senior, and she made the Olympic team in the 100 hurdles. But in Seoul she ran inexplicably poorly, failing to make the finals, and afterward sank into a mysterious illness.
For almost two years Devers suffered vision loss, wild weight fluctuations, fits of shaking and nearly perpetual menstrual bleeding. Finally, she was found to have Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder. But the radiation that doctors used to destroy a cyst and the bad part of her thyroid gland destroyed the whole gland. Her feet began to swell and ooze, her skin to crack and bleed. The pain became such that her parents had to carry her to the bathroom. Her suppurating feet were on the verge of requiring amputation before doctors realized that her radiation treatments may have been to blame. The therapy was changed, and in a month she was able to walk. It was the start of the greatest comeback in track history.
At the 1991 world championships in Tokyo, Devers was second in the 100 hurdles. In 1992 she won the Barcelona Olympic 100-meter dash by inches. She was not done. In the 100-hurdles final five days later, Devers led at the last barrier, caught it with the toe of her lead leg, tripped and dived across the line—in fifth place. A palpable, tastable second gold had vanished. Yet Devers never raged. "It just wasn't meant to be," she said.