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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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Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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