Cuba's Phoenix Flies the Track Again
Standing on the podium last summer in Sweden, with the thunderous roar of the crowd in her ears and the 800 meter gold medal around her neck, the cameras filmed a tear trickling down Ana Fidelia Quirot's cheek. Afterwards, people asked whether she was crying for joy, relief, or recalling the painful road she'd traveled to get there. "Truthfully I don't recall," Ana said, "but perhaps I was crying in amazement at being there at all."Like a modern-day phoenix, the Cuban track star and 1996 Olympic contender has literally arisen from the ashes of a kitchen fire that scorched 40% of her body with first degree burns. In those initial hours, as Cubans holding their breaths tuned into the medical bulletins, and reporters, teammates, and friends swarmed outside the Almeijeiras Hospital, the doctors were uncertain if Ana would live; the possibility of Ana ever running wasn't even considered. But they weren't counting on the tremendous will-power and tenacity of Ana Fidelia, who had already overcome so many other obstacles in her life to become a champion.Growing up in the small village of Palma Soriano in eastern Cuba, Ana was misdiagnosed with learning disabilities and sent to a special education school where a coach spotted her racing barefoot and grasped her potential. As part of the sweeping changes after the Revolution, along with free education and health care, sports were declared a "right of the people," and Sports Initiation Schools (ESPA) to help young athletes develop their potential were established. Ana was enrolled and soon on her way to a brilliant career in track and field, but adolescence did her in. The speed and agility that marked her childhood seemed to disappear with the onset of puberty. She was short and slightly overweight, too slow for sprints, and not sprite enough for the long jump."I was good, but no one ever dreamed I'd become a world champion," Ana said. "As an overweight teen I acquired the nickname "Gorda" (Fatty), which some people still call me! I didn't always practice as hard as I should and later on was dropped for not performing up to par. When they told me I couldn't continue in the ESPA, I thought my world had ended."But running was her destiny and fortune smiled on her again. Blas Beato, a veteran trainer who had coached Cuba's star 400 meter runner, Aurelia Penton, watched Ana race and recognized her potential for the 400 meter. With vigorous training under Beato's tutelage, she shed the extra pounds, built endurance, and gained self confidence. When head-strong Ana finally got serious about running she was unbeatable. Soon she was setting national records in the 400 and 800 meters, and then burst onto the world stage winning two gold medals in the Indianapolis Pan Am Games in 1987. She never mourned the loss of medals due to Cuba's boycott of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 that would have been hers: She was 23 and on top of the world.Although her life was a whirlwind of training and competitions, she found time for a college degree in physical culture -- magna cum laude, love, and marriage to world champion wrestler Raul Cascaret, who she later divorced in 1991, but remained fast friends with. Her winning streak continued, taking the Gran Premio International in Track and Field consecutively in 1987, 88, and 89. In 1989 she was crowned as the world's Best Woman Athlete.Shortly before that, Ana announced she planned to retire from the track in 1990 to have a child. Now at the peak of her career, friends and trainers convinced her to wait a little longer and set her sights on the Barcelona Olympics. But Ana's luck was soon to take a down turn. In '92 she suffered her first leg injury, which had her worried about the Olympics. Ana was devastated when Blas Beato, her lifelong trainer and dear friend, who was diagnosed in 1991 with cancer, could no longer train her and died two months before the Olympics. And Ana was pregnant.Ana's closet friend, Julia Osendia, a former runner herself and a sports caster for Cuban National TV, said, "She was in the first month, but she knew because her period was like clockwork; she never missed. I was the only one who knew Ana had gone to the Barcelona Olympics pregnant, but you couldn't have beaten it out of me with a stick."With so much against her, it was no surprise that Ana took a bronze for the 800 in Barcelona at a time of 1:56.80. With the Olympics behind, Ana decided to take time out and have the child, fathered by world-record high jumper, Javier Sotomayor, she'd always wanted. "Tests showed it was a girl," Ana recalled. "I had all the dreams for her that any mother has: dressing her up, taking her to the stadium to watch me run. I was even crocheting baby clothes."In her seventh month (January 1993) Ana was boiling diapers for the baby's layette, adding a few drops of alcohol to whiten them. Due to the economic crisis precipitated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the ongoing United States trade embargo, the shortage of soap and bleach forced Cubans to clean clothes by boiling them over a kerosene contraption. Suddenly the bottle of alcohol in her hand caught fire in her hand, the flames igniting her clothes. As she pulled her sweater off it stuck to her head and the whole upper part of her body was aflame."In those first hours I had one thought only," Ana recalls. "I wanted my baby to live! To run and play and feel the wind in her face as I had."The premature baby girl, put on life support, died ten days later. With Ana still waging her own battle the psychologists, fearing Ana would give up if she knew the baby died, didn't tell her until later. "But I just knew," Ana recalled. "I didn't tell anyone, but I think something in me sensed it the moment she died."Five tortuous months in the hospital ensued, and several more for restorative surgery. She was treated with synthetic human skin by a team of doctors led by Pedro Perez Duenas, a former world-record triple jumper. The burns had limited the movement of her arms and head, but had not affected her lower body. Despite the terrible physical and emotional pain, and what some thought was sheer denial, Ana was confident she'd run again and have another child. She scarred quickly, and instead of the six to seven months to recover, her bandages were removed after only two. To everyone's astonishment, Ana began running up and down the 15 flights of stairs to get in shape.Ana credits her recovery to the support of her mother, Esme Moret, her sister and brother, Mercedes and Robert, who both train with her, and friends like Julia Osendi who never lost faith, and her visit from Fidel. That first night Cuba's President, Ana's namesake and long-time friend rushed to her bedside. "Fidel's visit helped inspire me to live and run again for the Cuban people. Without the revolution a poor, black girl like me could never have become an athlete, and I certainly wouldn't have received the miracle of Cuban medicine that saved my life."Seven months later at the Central American Games in Puerto Rico, where 40 Cuban athletes requested asylum in the United States, Ana ran what many consider her greatest race. Though the movement of Ana's arms and head was limited, the crowd erupted when she took a silver in the 800 with a time of 2:05:22, losing to Suriname's Letitia Vriesde. But a bigger surprise was winning the World Championship in Goteberg, just two years after being on the brink of death. "The now-famous tear," Ana said, "was probably a mixture of joy and pain, sadness and triumph."Training daily with her brother and sister in Havana, Ana is currently gearing up for 800 and 1500 meters in Atlanta. Whether she wins a medal a not, simply her participation in the Olympics is a victory of the human spirit, and as Ana adds, "my gift to all the people who believed in me." And after Atlanta: Ana Fidelia Quirot dreams of having another baby.