Kirani James returns from Graves’ disease, inspired by Gail Devers

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A familiar sprinter popped up as the fastest qualifier into Wednesday’s 400m semifinals at the world championships: Grenada’s Kirani James.

James, who in 2012 became his small island nation’s first Olympic medalist (it was gold), has hardly been seen in competition since taking silver in Rio behind world-record-breaker Wayde van Niekerk.

That’s because he was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid. James learned of it after the April 2017 Drake Relays, when he finished sixth in his slowest final time in nine years. James said afterward that he wasn’t injured or fatigued, but he soon learned what was really wrong after a series of tests.

“What was the worst point? When I wasn’t feeling like me,” James said after Tuesday’s first-round heats in Doha, where he clocked 44.94, off his personal best of 43.74. “It’s a strange feeling because nobody knows your body better than yourself. When your body is telling you something, it’s like, OK, something’s wrong.”

Upon the diagnosis, James’ coach at the University of Alabama (where he ran collegiately) instantly thought of two-time Olympic 100m champion Gail Devers. Devers was diagnosed in the early 1990s. It was reportedly so dire that Devers, during radioactive iodine treatment, was reduced to crawling from room to room. Devers came back to make four more Olympic teams, including those 100m golds in 1992 and 1996.

“If she can get back, then we just have to follow a plan,” James said.

James did not mention any treatment other than medication he takes every morning and that he is at the end of a two-year cycle. The disease saps energy and causes weight loss. James then had to gain weight in treatment — he went from a race weight of 175 pounds up to 200 before dropping back down.

“Essentially what I had was a hyperactive thyroid. Only way you can [treat it] is kill off the thyroid,” he said. “It kind of goes from overproducing to zero, and then you have to take medication to balance it off. It takes a while for the medication to reach a certain level it’s supposed to. It’s kind of balancing off right now.”

James snuck into these world championships by posting a qualifying time in a small meet in Spain on Sept. 6, the very last day to become eligible. It was his first race since July 21, 2018 after he missed the 2017 Worlds with the disease.

James is seeded seventh at the world championships with a best time this season 1.02 seconds slower than world leader Michael Norman. But, for what it’s worth, he was faster than Norman and the other favorite, U.S. champion Fred Kerley, in Tuesday’s heats.

James is the lone Olympic 400m medalist entered at worlds. Other champions van Niekerk and LaShawn Merritt have also been sidelined for most of this Olympic cycle.

“Our event is so volatile where there is so much turnover of athletes,” James said, noting he was the only 2012 Olympic finalist to make the 2016 Olympic final. “It shows you how crazy our event is. My aim is to be consistent and not try to compare myself to a lot of the guys.”

James said he’s essentially cured but is on lifetime medication.

“I just have to try to be realistic and know that the next round is going to be even tougher,” he said, looking ahead to the semifinals and, potentially, the final.

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Doha.

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