Gail Devers in the 60m at the 2004 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Budapest (© Getty Images)
In a long and storied career, sprint-hurdles sensation Gail Devers snagged three Olympic and five world outdoor titles, but the pocket rocket also proved a master performer indoors. Here the retired US athlete reflects on the four gold and two silver medals she snared across five IAAF World Indoor Championships.
You experienced your first IAAF World Indoor Championships in Toronto in 1993. The previous year you had won Olympic 100m gold and finished fifth in the 100m hurdles (having led until striking the 10th hurdle). What was your motivation for competing in Canada?
“Unless I was injured, I liked to complete a full indoor season. I liked to peak twice each year (indoors and out). For me, that constituted a successful season. The indoor meets in Europe were always phenomenal. The fans were great and I found by competing well indoors it put me on pace to have a great outdoor season.”
For much of your indoor career, you focused more on the 60m flat than the 60m hurdles. What was the reasoning behind this strategy?
“I really liked to work on my speed from January through to March. Once I had the speed, I knew I could start training for the hurdles, drill my technique and learn to negotiate the hurdles running at that speed.”
You won five out of six 60m finals in 1993, including lowering your PB four times – to a best of 6.99 – leading into Toronto. What was your expectation going in to the 1993 World Indoor Championships?
“The expectation as always was to do my best. I never had a particular time in mind; it was all about just executing the race from the start and nailing every 10-metre segment. If I executed 90% of the race, I felt I would be successful and the times would come. I could only control my mechanics.”
What were your memories of Toronto?
“Irina Privalova had broken the world record (with 6.92, a mark which still stands today) earlier that year and we competed a lot that season. I remember I messed up a little in the final in that I didn’t feel I ran all the way through the line, but I ended up winning gold. And to break the US record in a championship record of 6.95 was a bonus (Devers finished 0.02 clear of Privalova).”
As an Olympic 100m champion in 1992, what did it mean to you to add the world indoor 60m title?
“After the Barcelona Olympics, it was important to come back, dominate and win some races and put it together indoors as well as outdoors. To be a world champion was a great feeling for me and I wanted to duplicate that in the outdoor season (which she did later that year, completing the 100m and 100m hurdles double at the IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart).”
Your next World Indoor Championships appearance came in 1997 in Paris where you went on to repeat your 60m victory from four years earlier.
“Yes, but I almost didn’t make the final after messing up my semi-final (Devers finished second in, for her, a pedestrian 7.15). I don’t really know what happened; I just didn’t move in the middle part of the race like I normally do.
“After I crossed the line, I didn’t know whether I had qualified, so I was simply ecstatic to make the final. I was determined not to repeat the same mistakes in the final. This time I moved in the middle phase but after the finish (a race she won in a time of 7.06 by a decisive victory margin of 0.09 from Chandra Sturrup) when I turned around, I realised Irina (Privalova) was not there. She had pulled up injured. We were good friends, so I went and gave her a hug to comfort her.”
You won the 60m silver medal at the 1999 World Indoor Championships in Maebashi before returning in 2003 for another crack at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham but this time in the 60m hurdles. Why did you target this event?
“A couple of years prior, I had started coaching myself and I wanted a new challenge. I had not run 60m hurdles since 1994 and I thought the speed of the event would also help my hurdling. It is a race with only five hurdles so there is no room for mistakes.”
In Birmingham you struck 60m hurdles gold in 7.81. How satisfying was it to snag this title for the first time, especially as you were aged 36 at the time?
“Yes, I was a grandmother (laughs). I always write down my goals for the year, whether that is on sticky notes or in a book, so it was nice to perform. It was also nice to show that age is just a number. Even though I am 51 today, I feel 21 and I still believe I can get out there and train. To win in Birmingham was a great morale booster.”
At the 2004 World Indoor Championships, you attempted the 60m and 60m hurdles double for the first time and won 60m gold and 60m hurdles silver. Was this your proudest World Indoor Championships accomplishment?
“Yes, I would say so. I felt so good in practise and I was on pace for the 60m hurdles world record. I had found some speed. I won the 60m flat (in 7.08) and two days later, just before I was due out for the 60m hurdles final, I decided to take the blocks back another inch or two because in my heat and semi-final I found I was rushing up to the hurdles. I had never practised this before and as soon as I got into my blocks, it played with my mind. It didn’t feel right. During the race, I was playing catch up and won silver (in 7.78, 0.03 behind Canada’s Perdita Felicien).
“I would suggest to anyone who wants to do to move the blocks back to practise it first.”
Why do you think you achieved so much at the World Indoor Championships?
“I’m a good starter, short, compact, powerful and explosive. I’m probably built for indoors.”
You competed at five World Indoor Championships. Why is it such a special event?
“The indoor season allowed me to work on my speed in a competitive setting and that is what I really enjoyed. Towards the end of my career I trained on me own, so although I was running quick times in practise I wanted to know that it was no accident and that’s what the World Indoors allowed me to do on a regular basis.”
Do you have any tips or advice to athletes competing at the World Indoor Championships?
“If you are not aiming to finish first, don’t show up. If you go in with the mind-set of finishing third, you’ll give a third-place performance. Success to me is about giving your all.”
What are you up to today?
“I am married to Mike with two daughters – Karsen, 12, and Legacy, 10 – who keep me busy. During my career I was known for my long nails and I am about to launch GD, a line of nail polish products and lip balm. I am also an ambassador for the IAAF, USATF and the Atlanta Track Club. I competed for many years in the sport, so I like to stay busy and give back.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF