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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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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ted Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment. He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, he had a pair of top-five results.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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