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 naivetè," 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."
This is an article from the May 10, 1993 issue
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.
Barcelona burned Devers into our consciousness. Who else had sunk so low only to rise so high? But the Devers drama was so wondrous that it tended to obscure the Devers persona. Staggered by her deeds, we might be forgiven for thinking that her story seemed all plot, no character. But, of course, it was character that drove the whole impossible train of events.
Devers grew up in San Diego, where her father, Rev. Larry Devers, is still the associate minister of Mount Erie Baptist Church. Her mother, Alabe, was a teacher's aide at an elementary school. "We were a Leave It to Beaver family," Devers says. "We had picnics, rode bikes and played touch football together. We did Bible studies together. My father and brother played the guitar together."
But preachers' kids, determined not to be precious, have been known to test constraints. "I never did," Devers says. "That was my brother. He was 14 months older and a rebel without a cause." (Well, you have to figure a guy named Parenthesis—that is her brother's name—has reason to chafe a little.)
"When it started to get dark," Devers continues, "we had to be in the house before the streetlight stopped flickering. My brother hated that rule. I would be a little mother, tugging him in, explaining to him that later he'd understand. My mom says I've always been old."
About the only television show the Devers kids were allowed to watch was I Love Lucy. This launched Gail on a lifetime of devotion to that sitcom. She has collected most of the 179 episodes. "My dream, growing up," she says, "was to spend the night with Lucy."
When she was six or seven, Gail pleaded so long to meet her idol that her father finally put her in the car and drove her the 120 miles to L.A. to find Lucille Ball. "After we got to Hollywood," he recalls, "we found we couldn't actually get to Lucille's house, so I pointed out a bent old woman on the street and said, 'There, that's her.'
" 'No!' wailed Gail.
" 'Yes, that's her. I'm sure. See what makeup does?'
" 'No! No!' cried Gail, and the tears started.
"I finally told her I was kidding," says Larry. "And on the way home we had a talk about illusion and reality and the importance of living your own life. We always taught her to think well of herself and be able to be independent."
When she was 10, Gail used her mother's teaching materials when friends came over to play. "The reading level of one kid," says Gail, "went from first grade to third because of the work we did together that summer. I used to want to be an elementary school teacher, but now I think that by then it's almost too late to start. I really want to go after kids in the earliest years, when they're such sponges."
Devers is a ferocious reader. "I love long novels," she says. "I have to slow myself down. I'm always whipping through 500 pages in a day and a half. I'm mad when a book's over."
Having begun life as a middle-aged soul, Devers just got older. "I crochet," she says. "I do the crossword puzzle. At heart, I'm a grandmother."
Devers is quite at ease with her own eccentricities, among which are 1) a monkey fetish, which she satisfies with a collection of stuffed animals; 2) such an abundance of energy that she refuses to sit cooped up in a movie theater for two hours; and 3) a lust to pry into the forbidden and the grotesque. "I ask people to take off bandages so I can look at their sores," she says. Famous for discussing with grisly exuberance the ooze that burst from her own feet, Devers now wants to take a night class on the female body and pregnancy. "Obstetrics and gynecology are fascinating," she says.
Thus it was that Devers—secure in herself, able in the way of a good responsive Baptist to withstand being preached to, and strong of stomach—presented the perfect clay for Kersee to mold and inspirit.
Who knows how Kersee was formed. He seems as inexplicable as the Supreme Being, omniscient, ubiquitous, demanding much, offering little but distant glory, juggling justice and mercy forever and ever. Amen. As much as both he and Devers assure you that he's always in control of his emotions, it can still seem to the unbaptized that tactical and training decisions hit him with the force of seizure. He can be furious when athletes don't share the clarity of his vision of them and for them. And he can rage at the hint that one of his athletes uses performance-enhancing drugs, as he did when such suspicions were raised about Devers after the Barcelona 100. (Nor is his predictive power confined to sport. He saw The dying Game's surprise coming a mile away.)
Having prepared Brisco to win three Olympic golds in 1984, Florence Griffith Joyner to take three more in 1988 and his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to win three golds and set four world records between 1986 and 1992, Kersee is not ungrateful. "It scares me," he says, "the responsibility that comes with such athletes. I tell them, 'I'm not going to physically or mentally harm you. No scars. Hard work. Pain, sure. No scars.' "
"I'm one of those 'question' people," says Devers. "I always ask why."
"I don't like to be questioned," says Kersee, "but I welcome a serious request for the reason behind a given workout or technique." But, Kersee says, "I stay a step ahead or they become the teacher, and I can't have that."
"He knows us all," says Devers. "He knows how far he can take each of us. He doesn't think I'm aggressive enough...."
"Not naturally aggressive enough," says Kersee. "Gail isn't exactly nonchalant, but she doesn't have the innate sprinter's nastiness. That's fine, dealing with her as a person, but not as a sprinter."
To illustrate the desired attitude—the "nastiness"—that Devers's competitors possess, Kersee stands and spreads his legs in a posture of arrogance, a gunfighter rising from a poker table. He performs so convincingly that he draws nervous eyes, because he and Gail are in a hotel lounge near her Mission Hills, Calif., home. He eases back into his chair, to his nonalcoholic beer and sunflower seeds. Devers smiles and sips her apple juice.
"Before the 60 in the indoor worlds in Toronto [in March]," says Kersee, "I think she was waiting for me to yell and carry on like I had in Barcelona, but I came at her from another direction." He wrote her a letter, challenging her to have enough command over her emotions to return to her Olympic focus. "Watching her stretching after she read that, seeing how she carried herself," Kersee says, "I said, 'It's there. It's over.' " Devers blew away from world-record holder Irina Privalova of Russia to win in 6.97.
One result of Kersee's assuming such responsibility for Devers's frame of mind is that he often thinks it's his fault if something goes wrong. In his telling, her fall in the Barcelona hurdles happened because he didn't exercise his fearful foresight.
"Her stride length has to be shorter in the hurdles than in the 100," he says. "Late in her 100 it's seven feet, but in the hurdles it can never be much more than six. We talked about that, but I didn't really concentrate on stride pattern as her key for the last three hurdles. Seeing her lead leg open up, seeing her go down.... I do blame myself for not reminding her."
While he has been talking, Devers has been shaking her head. "He's always this way," she says. "When I had bad races in 1988, he was blaming himself, racking his brain for his mistake." Turned out her thyroid was screwy.
But the Olympic fall still grates on Kersee. "It always bugged me," he says. "If I'd told her and she'd fallen, then I'd have been pissed at her. She'd have been able, warned, and just didn't execute. But the error was ours. It doesn't make sense to be mad at oneself. You want to learn and move on. And look at the joy of Greece's [Paraskevi] Patoulidou, who won the race. There must be a reason why [Patoulidou] is graced with this gift."
Devers has a list of goals in her sport, but at 26 she has been considering a return to the work she began at 10: teaching young children. "I want to open my own day-care center," she says. "It will have to wait until I'm out of track...."
"I think athletes let too much life pass by," Kersee interjects. "You don't have to wait for your next gold."
"Well, I want to do so much hands-on work that...."
"You gotta learn to delegate."
"But I want to be there every day."
"If you're going to run these things," says Kersee, snorting, "you gotta prepare. Look at ledgers, talk with accountants. If you don't start, something will always come up...."
"I have started." She doesn't seem to notice that her gesticulations have sent the table's popcorn flying. "Tin studying child-care ventures. I want activity books, cloth ones, that teach kids how to dress themselves. I've written songs, with meaning. I taught my goddaughter Shawnquintavia to spell her name with a song...."
Now Kersee flies into a frenzy. No, a vision. "That day-care center is real" he says. "It's out there, years from now, the way your gold in '92 was there in '84. The medal is here now, but it started way back there. The day-care center is already there. But if you're going to open the door of that center, it has to be claimed now. You have to see yourself opening that door, and then work back through all the steps that got you there, and then see them."
She is staring at him with perhaps the same odd expression she had when she first beheld a flight of his fevered mind.
"Thank god they tell us where the Olympics are going to be four or five years ahead of time," he concludes, and stares back at her.
A bystander, forced to ponder the passions of these visionaries, has two thoughts. The first is that maybe it takes one to know one. The second he puts into words, asking Devers and Kersee if what they strive for is synergy, a collaboration more potent than the sum of its parts.
"Trying to," says Kersee.
For her answer, Devers simply allows her head to drop in a bow of agreement. The gesture is reminiscent of the sprinter's last movement in the blocks before being called to the set position. It is a perfect expression of surrender, as Devers abandons herself to her destiny.