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ANA QUIROT // THE RACE IS TO THE QUICK

From the other side of the stadium, she looks like any other woman running on the Olympic track _ lithe and swift. At the turn toward the finish line she looks like one of the swiftest.

Except for her speed, which earned her a bronze medal in Barcelona four years ago and a silver medal here, there seems to be nothing extraordinary about 800-meter runner Ana Quirot.

Up close, though, is where you see the evidence of this 33-year-old Cuban's resilience and fortitude.

She is swathed in scars. Thirty-eight percent of her body _ her hands, arms, chest, neck and face _ are a patchwork of leathery, charred and mottled skin. And synthetic skin.

"I overcame death and every difficulty," Quirot said. "I am happy with the color of the medal because I was able to upgrade."

"I will never forget her'

Cuban athletes do not sign multimillion-dollar shoe contracts. But they are revered in their homeland, no more than by Fidel Castro, who has made athletics one of the cornerstones of his socialist revolution.

Sports heroes are national treasures, receiving the best food and the best housing Cuba can offer.

The best is a relative term. Castro has been president of Cuba since 1959, four years before Ana Fidelia Quirot was born. She is named after him. She has lived under the U.S. economic embargo that has turned necessities into luxuries and luxuries into fantasies. Automobiles, appliances and meat are scarce and costly.

With the start of the "special period," as Cubans call the collapse of the Soviet Union, even star athletes began enduring hardships. The flow of money to maintain their sports programs and facilities all but dried up. Quality of life, even for the elite, diminished.

So it was that on Jan. 23, 1993, five months after she won her Barcelona bronze, Quirot was washing her clothes as so many Cubans do _ over a kerosene cooker in the kitchen of her small Havana apartment.

She was stirring the mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water. It spilled over the top of the pot, flowed down the side and instantly ignited. Quirot was engulfed in flames.

When she awoke in Havana's Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital and looked up, Castro, a surgical mask covering his mouth, was looking down at her.

"How do you feel, Ana Fidelia?" he asked.

The pain was extraordinary. Quirot fought it back. "I am going to run again," she replied. "I won't let you down, or the Cuban people."

It was a brave gesture. In her own mind, she wondered whether she would even survive. "It wasn't, "Am I going to compete again?' " she said. "I didn't ask the doctors if I would be able to run again. The only question was whether I could save my life.

Quirot's pain was not just from the burns. It was from the baby girl she was carrying, fathered by Cuban high jump world-record holder Javier Sotomayor (she was a few weeks pregnant at the 1992 Olympics). A few days after the fire, doctors induced labor, trying to save the baby. They could not.

"It is the hardest thing for me to live with, that she lost her life," Quirot said. "I am scarred, but I am still alive. She was my first baby, and I felt so close to her, so excited. I will never forget her."

That is all she will say about the fire. "That," she said, "is in the past. It is better to speak of the present."

She could barely run

Getting to the present was painful at best _ seven skin grafts, applications of synthetic skin that limited her arms' mobility, and various other surgical procedures over an eight-month stretch. The 1994 track season passed without her.

Quirot says it was Cuba's medical program and a team of physicians, psychologists, nutritionists and trainers that enabled her to overcome her depression and pain and achieve a full recovery. "I believe that I am a symbol of the Cuban revolution, of its achievements in education, in medicine and sports," she said.

In her Havana apartment is a plaque, autographed by Castro, that thanks her "for your grit, determination, honor in sport and patriotic spirit."

Four months after the fire, Quirot began jogging up and down hospital stairs. One month after that, she removed her bandages and returned to the track at the Pan American Stadium, the same track where in 1991 she had won Pan Am gold in the 400 and 800 meters _ the same stadium she had helped build, carrying bricks and mortar.

Quirot could barely run. When she bent down to the starting blocks, when she pistoned her arms, the nerve endings in her stretched skin shrieked at her. "I felt so bad," she said. "I could barely stagger around the track five times." After less than nine minutes, she was worn out.

Better than ever

She kept at it. She had to see for herself whether she still could compete against the best. "I had to be able to run at the level of before the accident," she said, "or I wouldn't have come back.

"It wasn't only to win again that I drove myself, but to draw myself out. If I had been an ordinary person, if I hadn't been an elite athlete, I believe I wouldn't have made it. I wouldn't have had the fortitude to overcome such physical and emotional hardship. In competitive sport, you learn to go beyond your means."

Last year Quirot completed her comeback. She won the 800-meter world championship in Goteborg, Sweden, and added a victory in the 800 at the Atlanta Grand Prix last May. "In some ways, I'm even better than ever," she said. "I think my endurance, and the fact that I was able to struggle, comes from the sport itself.

"I still have to have more surgery, but I'm going to wait until after retirement. I still have much more racing left. I am so happy to be running again and to win an Olympic medal for me and my country."

Look at the scars. They are a testament to endurance. More important, look past them at the complete person.

"I am the same woman as before," Quirot said. "Look at me, it's my smile and my laughing eyes. Just as before."

Meet the athlete

BORN: March 23, 1963, Palma Soriano, Cuba.

RESIDENCE: Santiago de Cuba.

HEIGHT: 5-4. WEIGHT: 130.

SCHOOL: Manuel Fajardo College, Havana.

PERSONAL BESTS: 1995 world champion, 800 meters; 1996 Olympic silver medalist, 800 meters; 1992 Olympic bronze medalist, 800 meters; ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400 and 800 in 1990; four-time Pan Am Games gold medalist; won 39 consecutive races, an 800-meter record, during 1987-90.

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