Given her substantial lead at the end of tonight's 100-meter hurdles final, there was--for the first time in years--no doubting Gail Devers. Considered a fading American legend entering the world track and field championships, Devers breezed to victory, running the fastest time in U.S. history and the best in the world this year. Yet the ease with which Devers won her fourth world title belied the much higher hurdles that preceded the race.

Sweden's Ludmila Engquist, too, found more challenges on the way to the 100 hurdles final than she found along the course itself. Engquist, the '97 world champion, finished behind Nigeria's Glory Alozie to take the bronze in the event, an incredible triumph given her struggle with breast cancer this summer. But she won't have much time to enjoy her conquest because she has a chemotherapy session scheduled for early September.

"The future," Engquist said tonight, "is not looking good for me."

On a night in which the crowd of 52,273 at Olympic Stadium cheered Spaniard Abel Anton's victory in the men's marathon and countryman Yago Lamela's silver medal--behind Cuban Ivan Pedroso--in the men's long jump, Devers and Engquist earned medals that were less celebrated but every bit as emotional. The old rivals and friends embraced immediately after the race. They also took what amounted to a joint victory lap, with Engquist jogging with the Swedish flag just ahead of Devers.

"When she got across the finish line, I just told her, 'I am so proud of you,' " Devers said. "She makes me think back to what I had to overcome. It's a tough road."

Devers, 32, constantly monitors a thyroid condition that nearly required amputation of her feet in the late-1980s, and she recently has been beset by a number of physical ailments. She missed most of last year because of an Achilles' injury. Her training earlier this year was interrupted by complications from her thyroid problem, Graves' Disease, according to her agent, Greg Foster. The complications caused her to suffer fatigue, loss of appetite and insomnia, he said.

In May, things got worse. A magnetic resonance imaging test showed that Devers suffered three small tears in her right hamstring while training.

All of which made her time of 12.37 seconds tonight--a personal best--all the more astonishing.

"At the beginning of this year, I wasn't expecting to even come here, based on what my MRI [test] looked like," Devers said.

Her previous best time in the 100 hurdles (12.46) set the former American record--and she posted that time six years ago. Because of injuries and her emphasis on the 100 meters, Devers has competed in only about a half dozen hurdle events in the last three years.

"It's been since 1993," she said laughing, "that I've run fast."

A couple of hours after her victory in the hurdles, Devers returned to the track to anchor the semifinal round of the 4x100 relay. Devers outsprinted Jamaica's Peta-Gaye Dowdie in a close finish--the United States moved to the final round with a victory by .08 seconds.

Besides her four world titles, Devers owns four Olympic gold medals--two individual--and has been one of the most successful female sprinters of the last decade. One of her more memorable victories came in the 100 meters at the 1992 Olympic Games--shortly after losing a sure gold medal in the 100 hurdles when she fell over the last hurdle.

Yet early in her career, she was overshadowed by the late Florence Griffith Joyner and Gwen Torrence and, more recently, she has been eclipsed by Marion Jones, who won a gold and a silver medal here before a back injury ended her meet.

"Gail has taken it in stride," Foster said.

He added, jokingly: "Bobby [Kersee, her coach] gets her all riled up, and then he tells me to go and settle her down."

Engquist, 35, who underwent surgery in April to remove her right breast, planned her chemotherapy sessions around the world championships. Despite the physical strain caused by her treatment this summer, Engquist has been competitive throughout the outdoor season. She ran so well in the 100 hurdle semifinal here--her time was the best overall--that she hoped she could win her second straight world title tonight.

"I'm a little bit disappointed because I dreamt that I would have a gold medal," she said. "However, a medal is a wonderful thing for me to have after all that I have been through with my illness."

Engquist intends to compete at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but she recognizes that she might be at the mercy of her battle against cancer, which was diagnosed in March. She has joked that, if she wins a gold medal in Sydney, she will throw her prosthesis into the stands.

Engquist's plans for a gold ended nearly as soon as the starting gun went off. She got off to a slow start and had to make up ground just to finish third. Still, her 12.47 time was a personal best and national record.

Said Engquist: "There was no way I could have run as fast as Devers tonight."

CAPTION: Gail Devers shows off her gold medal in the women's 100-meter hurdles after a U.S. record time.