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BACK IN THE RUNNING FIDEL CASTRO'S FAVORITE ATHLETE, TRACK STAR ANA QUIROT, HAS RETURNED FROM A NEAR FATAL BURNING

May 22, 1995
May 22, 1995

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May 22, 1995

BACK IN THE RUNNING FIDEL CASTRO'S FAVORITE ATHLETE, TRACK STAR ANA QUIROT, HAS RETURNED FROM A NEAR FATAL BURNING

By S.L. Price PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES

THE MERCEDES, black and gleaming, pierces January's soggy dark
like a bullet, cracking one barrio after another. Maybe someone
sees or hears, but then the dictator's sedan is gone again, and
the night rushes in behind it. No great city is as dead as
Havana at midnight. Lights snap off, streets empty, it grows
oddly still, like a war zone without war: no bombs, no gunfire,
just the gap-faced buildings on the Malecon crumbling away, gray
and pockmarked, as winter waves blast the nearby seawall, and
the air rustles with this low-level buzz. Cities have voices --
brassy or coarse or fiery or calm -- and Havana's is a mutter,
the sum of a million whispers behind half- shut doors. It's as
if all the homes were being ravaged by termites. You hear the
place being eaten alive.

This is an article from the May 22, 1995 issue

And over it all something blazes: A massive chimney in the
city's eastern rise spouts this flame that never dims, that
licks the black sky like a tongue telling satellites and stars
that, yes, Havana is still here, still here as Fidel Castro,
beard graying, sits in the back of his car en route to Hermanos
Ameijeiras Hospital in the first hour of the 23rd day of 1993.
Ana Quirot -- once the world's No. 1 runner in the 400 and 800
meters, a bronze medalist in the 800 at the 1992 Olympics --
lies in the hospital's burn unit, close to dead. She is so
thirsty.

He comes through the doors, surrounded, and steps into that too
vivid hospital light. The tang of disinfectant, of rubber, of
dripping fluid infects the place. Everyone bustles,
grim-mouthed. It is a horror. How could she be here?

The information is sketchy. Earlier in the evening, a kerosene
cooker exploded in Quirot's kitchen. The fire leaped upon her
stomach, her chest, under her arms, killing nerves, clawing up
toward her eyes. Thirty-eight percent of her body is covered
with third-degree burns. One nurse, who has worked with burn
victims for 14 years, is sure Quirot won't survive. But Quirot
is conscious now. She has no idea what she has become.

Castro steps into sterilized scrubs, a mask for his mouth. He
wants to see.

Was there ever an athlete more magnificent? In the summer of
1991, in Havana, Quirot broke the Pan American Games records in
the 400 and 800 meters, and if any performance reflected the
Cuban team's stunning dominance, it was hers. Like her fellow
athletes, she had lugged cement to help build the facilities
where Cuba -- writhing in the pincer-grasp of the U.S. trade
embargo and the end of Soviet sponsorship -- punished the
Yanquis day after day, winning more gold medals than the U.S.
for the first time in history. In both of her races Quirot, long
braids trailing, exploded away from the pack. She was her
country's answer to Florence Griffith-Joyner, but without the
absurd fingernails or armor-plate body; all her charisma flowed
from those turbine legs, that snarled mouth, this fierce and
happy refusal to lose. ``Her will,'' says her coach, Leandro
Civil, ``that's what separates her from the rest.''

Even more, Quirot came from Oriente, the same province that
spawned Castro, and as a baby she'd been named after him: Ana
Fidelia. She had been friends with Castro since their first
meeting, in 1982. She had defended his regime through every
crisis, never mourning her loss of medals because Cuba boycotted
the '84 and '88 Olympics. ``The nicest thing he ever did for
me?'' she once said. ``He made the revolution.'' After one of
her Pan Am wins in '91, she took off her gold medal and placed
it around Fidel's neck.

So it was that Quirot became, more than fabled boxer Teofilo
Stevenson or runner Alberto Juantorena, the revolution's
greatest symbol: tough, simple, winning. So it was that, as she
circled the track in '91 with Castro beaming from his seat, the
packed stadium rose and clapped and chanted her name -- and his
-- again and again. A-na! they shouted, in a referendum as loud
as thunder rolling. A-na! Fi-del-ia! For that moment you could
be forgiven a lack of perspective. You were quite sure Quirot
and Cuba and Castro would never lose.

He is in the room. Machines hum, tubes and wires droop
everywhere. Quirot is breathing softly. She floats in this
strange netherworld; she cannot move, there is no pain, her body
dips in and out of shock. No one has told her how deep the burns
have gone. Fidel asks her how she feels. He asks how it
happened, if her mother knows yet. He tells her to keep
fighting. It is, she will say later, like having Cuba's
government standing by her bed. ``Well, he is the state, yes?''
she will say.

He looks down at her, seeing what she can't. Quirot says to him,
``I'm going to run again.'' What can he say? He nods, he smiles.
Midnight, and outside the streets are so quiet. What no one knew
in Barcelona, six months earlier, was that she had won her
Olympic bronze medal in the 800, in a time of 1:56.80, while a
few weeks pregnant. Now, under the bandages, in her womb, the
baby feels the burning. Quirot doesn't know this. She is
speaking of running. In 10 days the baby will be dead.

The scars are all ridges and swirls, like the surface of the
sea, except the sea is colored a rich chocolate and smeared
along her neck, her collarbone, up to the ridge of the left
cheekbone. Quirot sits in her dining room, shuffling a deck of
cards on a white lace tablecloth. The streets outside stink of
diesel, but up here on the 10th floor, with the salt breeze
blowing through the windows, the air is fresh. She sets down the
cards. She twists one ring off her hand and lays it on the
table. Her nails, manicured and painted, are perfect.

She was always vain, and like most vain people Quirot at her
core believed there was something wrong with the way she looked.
She would peer into the mirror: Your nose is too wide. Your lips
aren't quite right. Growing up, her thickness earned her the
nickname gorda -- Fatty -- and though the fat faded, the name
never did. Before the accident she worked occasionally as a
model, and many were the reporters who came away from interviews
sure that Quirot had flirted with them. She liked to play. She
liked the strength that being attractive gave her.

The first time Quirot saw herself after the accident, she forgot
her promise to return to the track. ``I wasn't going to run
anymore,'' she says, taking off another ring and stacking it on
top of the first. ``I wanted to, but I looked horrible.''

She could not close her hands; she couldn't raise her arms
enough to comb her hair. Quirot was 29 then. Doctors reassured
her that with time and therapy and many operations, she could be
well again. She listened; why not? They were the best doctors in
Cuba. But then there were days when Quirot would catch sight of
her swollen face, the skin planed to plastic smoothness, and
tears would stream over the scars. She felt sure the doctors
were tricking her. Sometimes when her mother and her sister came
to visit, Ana Fidelia screamed at them to leave her alone. She
felt her spirit shriveling to ash. An antiathlete now, she could
do nothing physical. Useless. She told her mother they should've
let her die.

Then there were the rumors. Quirot heard them all, the plot
lines more baroque than in the wildest soap opera: The explosion
wasn't an accident. She had tried to commit suicide after a
fight with her lover, the father of her unborn child, who was
married to another woman and was said to be none other than
Cuba's world-record high jumper, Javier Sotomayor. Quirot had
wanted to name the child after him. He refused and broke off the
affair. She lit herself on fire.

``I've heard a lot of versions,'' Quirot says, smiling thinly.
Four gold rings sit in a pile before her. ``When you're famous,
people are always speculating -- and never in your favor.
Sometimes it's good to be famous. . . .'' She shrugs.
``Sometimes it's bad.''

She had been married for eight years to former world champion
wrestler Raul Cascaret, then divorced in 1991. Yes, she says,
Sotomayor was the father of the lost baby. But there was no
fight. ``My relations with my lover were very good,'' she says.
The night of the accident, she was with a friend in her
apartment. ``It's best for me not to remember,'' she says.
``It's a nightmare.''

Quirot had gone to the kitchen to light her cooker, a kerosene
contraption used all over Cuba and a frequent cause of fire.
Shortages of bleach and soap have forced many Cubans to wash
their clothes on the stove, in a heated mixture of isopropyl
alcohol and water. Quirot thought the cooker, which sat on her
stove, was off. She poured in the alcohol, and it flowed over
the lip of the pot, down the sides and into the fire. ``And the
flames came up,'' she says. They leaped onto her sweater. She
struggled to pull it off, too late.

Sotomayor, she says, helped her in the first days in the
hospital. ``He was always by my side,'' she says. Then the baby
was discovered to have brain damage, and doctors induced labor.
``At a certain point we talked,'' Quirot says of Sotomayor. ``I
decided to break it off. It's hard to have a relationship when
you're in a hospital. I decided he should have his own life. For
his own good -- so it wouldn't interfere with his training.''
Once in a while, now, Quirot will see Sotomayor at the track,
but this isn't hard anymore. ``You get used to everything,'' she
says.
Slowly Quirot got used to her new self. Thanks to the
hospital's satellite dish, she could spend hours watching sports
on ESPN. Three weeks after the accident her coach visited,
waving to her through the glass at the burn ward. The first
thing Quirot did was lightly slap her thighs, to show him her
legs were untouched. A team of doctors led by Pedro Perez
Duenas, a former world- record holder in the triple jump,
treated her with synthetic human skin. After a month Quirot was
doing light cardiovascular work. By the second month she was
stretching and biking and running up and down the hospital
stairs. After three months she was released.

``I didn't think she'd ever be able to run again,'' says Clara
Veliz, one of Quirot's nurses. ``But once she began to train, I
realized she would succeed, because she had the desire. She is
strong. Being an athlete is what saved her.'' But she had more
than desire; she had impatient genes. ``She scarred quickly,''
Veliz says. ``It should've taken her six or seven months to
recover. We were taking off her bandages in two.''

On May 13, less than four months after the accident, as the sun
set over the track at Havana's Juan Abrantes Stadium, Quirot
removed her neck brace and unwrapped the bandages around her
arms. It was close to 8 p.m., the only good time, because her
healing skin could not be exposed to strong sunlight. She ran
for eight minutes and 40 seconds, five laps around the track,
then stopped and stretched. Her skin itched, her arm hurt. Her
first words to the four journalists watching: ``I'm overweight
by seven kilos.''

In November, Quirot ran her first race, at the Central American
and Caribbean Games in Ponce, Puerto Rico. In the largest
defection of athletes under the Castro regime, 40 Cubans
requested asylum in the U.S. But the official news in Havana was
joyous: With her arms and neck constricted by scar tissue,
Quirot finished second in the 800 with a time of 2:05.22, losing
to Suriname's Letitia Vriesde for the first time in her career.
No matter. In a speech to the Ponce athletes when they returned
home, Castro declared Quirot's achievement ``one of the most
impressive things we've ever seen in our lives. She won a silver
medal, and the gold medal for bravery.'' He hugged Quirot,
blinked away tears.

It was, she says, her greatest race. ``I couldn't tilt my head
to the side or up; I looked like a robot! But a lot of people
didn't expect me to run again, let alone win a medal. I showed
the world that handicapped people can do things that seem
impossible.''

The label isn't easy to swallow. Handicapped? It has been two
years since the explosion. The kerosene cooker is gone. On one
wall in Quirot's apartment, more than a dozen pictures hang.
There's Ana Fidelia running in Havana -- the Pan Am Games? Si.
With Fidel? Si. With Sotomayor? Si. She shows the pictures so
proudly, it takes a moment for you to realize that not one was
snapped after January 1993. Someone points to the biggest, a
poster of the Olympics in Barcelona: Three women, racing one
behind the other in a blur, Quirot in the middle -- fists
clenched, legs pumping. Quirot looks up at herself on the wall,
perfect and frozen in midstride. Her eyes shine like glass.

Brilliance rains down on the track this late-winter morning,
sunlight without mercy. Dozens of athletes trip through their
paces before the empty, gray stands of Pan American Stadium:
sprinters blazing, triple jumpers hopping, men running with
vaulting poles. ``Ten minutes!'' a voice yells. Quirot, head
wrapped in a scarf, left hand bandaged, ambles past high jumpers
lolling and laughing on their cushion. No one pays her any mind.
She jogs a little, popping knees to chin, staring off into
nothing. ``Three minutes!''

It has been five weeks since the last round of plastic surgery,
her seventh time under scalpel and anesthesia since the fire.
The day before, a story in Granma, Cuba's only daily newspaper,
was titled for ana fidelia nothing is impossible. She once won
39 straight races, and she didn't lose at all in 1989, when the
IAAF named her Female Athlete of the Year.

This will be her first test in months, a 1,000-meter time trial.
She pulls off her purple stretch pants, revealing a red, white
and blue singlet. On her left biceps, strips of skin run side by
side like pieces of masking tape. Quirot steps onto the track
with her rabbits: her brother Eliades and her old friend
Mercedes Alvarez.

Pockkk! Gunshot cracks air, and suddenly she's the one important
thing in the stadium. ``Vamos!'' one athlete yells, and then
another, and another. ``Vamos!'' Ana Fidelia catches Mercedes
first, at the end of Lap 1, and now no one can look away. She
runs easily, arms pumping freely. ``Ay, vamos, gorda!'' come the
voices from the sand pit, the infield, the high jump cushion.
``Come on, Fatty!''

Quirot wants one more Olympics. She is aiming for Atlanta in
'96, for the 800- and 1,500-meter races. ``If I could make a
final, that would be huge,'' she says. ``It would be a great
feat.'' Quirot once ran a 1:54.44 in the 800 (the alltime third
best), and she figures she needs to run 1:57 to make the Cuban
team. Since the accident her fastest 800 has been the 2:05 in
Ponce; if she can't budge that, she will retire. But pressure
builds. Quirot knows: The entire country wants this comeback.

``She's an example for everybody,'' says Juantorena, hero of the
'76 Olympics. ``Someone who fights a great illness. A woman who
must overcome worry about the way she looks -- and she has
overcome that. We're grateful. It's a beautiful thing.''

A successful comeback by Quirot would, as the Cuban magazine
Bohemia put it, ``constitute an unquestionable symbol of the
achievements of [our] medical and athletic sciences.'' But it
would mean even more, for Quirot is the prize product of
Castro's socialist plan. She was born soon after the revolution
and sifted like fine sugar through the regime's sports system.
It is eerie how their tragedies -- Quirot's and Cuba's --
dovetail so cleanly. ``It's like looking in a mirror,''
Juantorena says of her, ``and we're reflected.'' Since 1989,
Cuba has taken shocking blows, declining into a physical wreck
that somehow, against all odds, survives. Quirot has lost
beauty, her baby and finally her ex-husband and close friend,
Cascaret, who died in a car crash only two months ago. Yes, she
says, the sky has fallen on her, ``but I've never let it knock
me down.

``I can't be lazy,'' she says. ``Because after what happened to
me, I shouldn't even be running.''

Vamos, gorda! Quirot is finishing the second lap now. It is just
she and her brother for the final 200 meters, and as she shoots
by, magnificent still, you can see the faded white letters on
her back: C-U-B-A. Then it is over: Civil's clock clicks, Quirot
pulls up. She is immediately surrounded; someone takes blood out
of her finger, checks her pulse. The clock says 3:00.18.

``She did better than I thought,'' says Civil, who expected
3:06, maybe 3:05. ``She demands more of herself than we do, and
I think she's not satisfied. She didn't have the confidence to
run faster.'' His eyebrows lift. ``Still,'' he says, ``that's
the fastest Cuban time in the 1,000 this year.''

Dark outside now. Her hands are still moving, dancing on the
lace tablecloth. Six rings sit in a pile, and somehow a hairpin
has found its way into the mix. She begins to pull the bracelets
off her wrists. Ana Fidelia Quirot is 32, but her hands look
almost carved, old without wrinkles, as if fate took the most
drastic, violent means to trace suffering on her skin.

She will need more operations. ``The skin heals slowly, and I
have to wait for it to soften and gain elasticity so the doctors
can work on it,'' she says. ``As it softens, they can stretch it
so I can have my own skin back.''

She still has all her old clothing. But she knows there are some
things she can't wear. ``I always liked to look good, but now I
know I can't put on a strapless gown or a bathing suit like I
used to,'' she says. ``I'm sad I can't wear something like that.
I'm sad I can't go to the beach. But I know other people have
worse problems than mine.''

Someday, after Atlanta, she would like to try having another
baby. The fire didn't take away that possibility.

Sometimes, when Quirot is on the street, people will tell her
she is prettier now than she ever was. ``I don't agree with
them,'' she says, ``because I wasn't born like this.''

She has had lovers, but no long relationship. The first time,
she says, ``the scars worried me. But I know I'll have a
companion someday, someone who's right for me, someone who
doesn't concentrate on the details but looks more at what's
inside.''

She tilts her head, chin grazing her chest. The last bracelet
sits with the rest, gleaming. ``Now,'' she says, ``whoever loves
me is going to love me for myself.''

Her fingers and wrists are bare. A sweet wind blows in, high
above Havana. Before her, next to a bowl of waxed fruit, she has
built a small hill of gold.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Quirot is fit and focused on a return to the Olympics in '96. [Ana Quirot]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The freewheeling Quirot of 1990 ran stiffly 10 months after the fire, but Civil has helped her regain her old flexibility. [Ana Quirot running on a track in 1990]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LEAH/ALLSPORT [see caption above--Ana Quirot running]SVEN CREUTZMANN/ZONE 5 [see caption above--Ana Quirot, with a man holding a stopwatch]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES In sports-mad Cuba the popular Quirot is as much an institution as Havana's Old Capitol Building and its clamorous Palace of Salsa. [Ana Quirot with a group of people in Havana; Ana Quirot dancing in a discotheque]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKESRunning in Atlanta would be Quirot's most glittering achievement, whether or not she won gold. [Ana Quirot wearing several rings and looking at her hands]