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Bruin Gail Devers Steps Into the Spotlight : Multi-Event Track Star Sprints Out of the Shadow of Olympic Great

May 28, 1987|IRENE GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

UCLA's Gail Devers may have been overlooked in the past because teammate Jackie Joyner-Kersee

winner of the Sullivan Award as the world's finest female athlete--was breaking track records.

Joyner-Kersee returned from the 1984 Olympics with a silver medal in the heptathlon during Devers' first season at UCLA.

Sure, Devers made the school's all-time list that year for her 59.26 in the 400 hurdles and 23.12 in the 200 meters. She also anchored a few of the school's fastest 4x100-meter relay teams.

But you don't get much attention when you're on a team with a world-class track star.

"Jackie was this famous Olympian who everybody knew and Gail was just a freshman and no one recognized her," said UCLA Coach Bob Kersee, who's married to Jackie.

But now, in Devers' junior season, Joyner-Kersee is out of the picture and Devers occupies center stage as UCLA's best multi-event track star.

"She's blessed with a lot of talent," said Joyner-Kersee, who assists her husband in coaching the Bruins.

Joyner-Kersee predicts that Devers will dominate sprinting in the '88 Olympics.

"Gail is just naturally fast," she said. "She's going to be one of America's best, one of the world's best."

Joyner-Kersee should know. She holds the UCLA record in the 100-(13.07) and 400-meter hurdles (55.05) along with appearing on the all-time list in the 200- and 400-meter races.

"Gail also has a high level of determination that allows her to compete well and bounce back after every event," Joyner-Kersee said. "She can be the best."

Devers is often described at UCLA as the one-woman track team. That's nothing new.

At high school in San Diego she won a CIF track championship all by herself--a team event, that is.

No one else on her team at Sweetwater High School qualified for the championships so she entered by herself, won four events and won the team competition.

"Everyone was there with teammates and coaches and I was there with my father," she recalled.

Devers recalls how she got into running:

"It was my brother's fault. He played football, and during my sophomore year he had me work out with the cross-country team to get in shape with him.

"When track season started I did the 800 and set the CIF record at 2.11."

Every year different people suggested to Devers that she try a new event, and one thing led to another.

She holds CIF records in San Diego in the 300 and 400 hurdles and the 400 and 800 races.

"I did so well," she said, "that I wanted to go to a college that had good performers.

"In San Diego it was only me, and I wanted to go where there were better athletes to push me. That's why I chose UCLA."

As a Bruin, she sprints, hurdles and jumps, usually winning all and contributing more points than any other athlete. She holds the school record in the triple jump at 43-8.

"She doesn't put a limit on her body," Kersee said. "She's willing to do things that some people won't do. She'll try anything.

"When she was younger she tried the 800 meters, then cross-country and hurdles. A lot of people criticize me for overworking her, but she wants to do it. She always wants to do more."

Last year the 5-3 junior led the Bruins in the 100 and 200 meters, the 100 hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump along with anchoring both of UCLA's fastest relay teams.

She qualified for the NCAA championships in all five of her individual events and both relay teams, but a hamstring injury forced her out of the 100-meter and triple jump finals.

"It's the hurdles," Devers said. "Whenever I do hurdles, my hamstrings get tight. This year at the NCAAs I don't think I'll do hurdles."

That's why Kersee is bringing her along slowly in the hurdles and stressing sprints even though her ability as a sprinter is underestimated by many track fans.

"People are deceived by her height," said Kersee, who has coached Olympians Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Greg Foster and Andre Phillips. "They think she can't be a dominating sprinter because she's only 5-3.

"Let me tell you, she runs like she's 5-8 and she's capable of developing into one of the best sprinters ever."

Devers showed her speed when she set the NCAA championship meet record last year in the 100-meter race with an 11.12 clocking.

She has qualified for the NCAA meet in seven events this season--five individuals and two relays.

She holds the fastest clocking in the U.S. this year for her 11.15 100-meter performance against Houston. She has also qualified in the 200-and 400-meter races, the 100 hurdles and the long jump.

"Lots of people can do good in different events, but they say, 'I can't, I'm too tired.' You have to condition and discipline yourself," Devers said.

"You can't try to run a world record in one event when you have four more to do. You just have to have faith and believe in yourself."

Devers also seeks inspiration from a higher source. "I attribute my success to God. He's given me the strength to survive my six events."

A couple of weeks ago she displayed that strength against USC.

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