Gail Devers was at the peak of her collegiate running career at UCLA when her health started to fail.
“My hands were constantly shaking, I had extreme fatigue and my eyes started bothering me,” the Olympic gold medalist tells PEOPLE. “I lost so much weight that I looked emaciated, and I had sores on my face and my skin was peeling off.”
Despite the strange symptoms and feeling unusually weak, she made it to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But at her hurdling and sprinting events, her body would not perform. “Something was definitely wrong,” says Devers, 55. “I got there, and the bottom fell out — I ran slower than the first time I’d ever stepped on the track.”
She came back from the Games and embarked on a three-year search for answers involving countless doctor visits. The 5’3″-inch athlete remembers her hair falling out in clumps and her weight dropping from 125 lbs. to 79 lbs. Friends, family members and teammates would ask if she was okay, but, she says, “I got tired of having to answer those questions — and of having no answers for myself.”
Her conditioned worsened and her self-esteem took a hit. One day she was sitting in a park and a kid playing nearby asked his mom what was wrong with Devers, saying she “looks like a monster.”
Devers shudders at the memory. “I went in my house. I looked at myself in the mirror, at the skeleton of the person that was looking back at me. And I covered my mirrors with black sheets.” Devers went through a period of depression, staying in her house, not answering the door, not answering the phone.
Then in 1990, she ran into her UCLA track team physician for the first time in a while, and she noticed Devers’ visible goiter, a swelling of the thyroid in the neck. “That was the first time I had ever even heard of a thyroid,” Devers says.
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SOURCE: PEOPLE, Stephanie Emma Pfeffer