Quirot, Ana 1963–
Ana Quirot 1963–
Cuban track and field athlete
For the tiny island nation of Cuba, sports championships are a means to establish international stature. Only ten million residents strong, Cuba is able to boast Olympic medals and world championships in sports as varied as boxing, baseball, and track and field. Chief among the Cuban track and field stars of the last decade is Ana Quirot, whose brave comeback from a potentially career-ending injury was the talk of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Once the fastest woman in the world at both 400 meters and 800 meters, Quirot overcame devastating burns to a third of her body to win a silver medal in the 800 meter race at the Atlanta Olympics. A New York Times Magazine correspondent observed that the indomitable runner”represents to Cubans their own struggle with adversity. Today, Quirot is a certified mythological hero who can hardly move through Havana without attracting admirers, particularly children.”
The success of Cuba’s athletes has been important to the socialist country on many levels. Some stars like Quirot serve as unofficial ambassadors for their state, espousing the ideals of the nation’s revolution and
professing faith in their government. The runner told the Los Angeles Times: “I believe that I am a symbol of the Cuban revolution, of its achievements in education, in medicine and sports… I will be ready to serve the Revolution any way and at any time.” Indeed, Quirot’s exceptional career has served as an example of both the perils and the pleasures of life in a country that has been spurned by captialist nations worldwide. When she is remembered, however, it will be less for her revolutionary ideals than for her outstanding achievements on the track.
Ana Quirot (Keer-OAT) was born in the suburbs of Santiago de Cuba, in the country’s Oriente province, in 1963. The Cuban revolution that brought socialist leader Fidel Castro to power was still in its infancy at the time, but Quirot’s parents were such ardent supporters that they gave their young daughter the middle name “Fidelia.” Athleticism ran in the Quirot family. Ana’s father was a boxer, her brother ran the 400 meter dash, and her sister has played basketball with the Cuban
At a Glance…
Full name Ana Fidelia Quirot; born in 1963, in Santiago de Cuba/Oriente, Cuba; married Raul Cascaret (a wrestler; deceased).
Track and field athlete in 400 and 800 meter races, 1976-96. Selected victories include gold medals in 400 and 800 meters at 1987 and 1991 Pan American Games, world cup in 800 meters in 1989, bronze medal in 800 meters at 1992 Summer Olympics, gold medal in 800 meters at 1995 world championships, and silver medal in 800 meters at 1996 Summer Olympics. Was fastest woman at both 400 and 800 meter distances in 1989.
Selected awards: Named the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) female track athlete of the year, 1989.
Addresses: Home—Havana, Cuba.Office—do Cuba Olympic Committee, Zona Postal 4, Calle 13, No. 601, Havana, Cuba.
national team. In her earliest years Ana seemed destined to be the exception to her family’s rule. Her friends called her “La Gorda,” which means “fatty.” Interestingly enough, the label has stuck even through a decade of world championships.
Growing up, Quirot was dedicated to two heroes: Fidel Castro and local running legend Alberto Juantorena, who won gold medals in the 400 and 800 meter races at the 1976 Olympics. If she was fat as a young girl, she soon enough shed the weight when she began running seriously as a teen. At the age of 13 she won placement in one of Cuba’s prestigious state sports schools. There her conventional education was embellished by a serious training regimen in a state-of-the-art facility. Such athletic training in Cuba is fully subsidized by the socialist government. Therefore Quirot’s parents did not have to pay a penny for her coaching, room and board, or other fees. The state paid for everything. As James Anderson noted in the Los Angeles Times, Quirot”was groomed and conditioned to become the world-class athlete that she is.”
Not particularly tall at five-foot-four, Quirot nevertheless found her niche in the longer sprints, especially the 400 and 800 meters. After completing her education in the
early 1980s, she devoted herself completely to running. Just as she surged into her peak performance years, however, the Cuban government decided to boycott not one but two consecutive Olympic Games. Top-ranked in her country in both the 400 and 800 meter races, Quirot sat out the 1984 and 1988 Olympics due to Cuba’s boycott. She has never expressed any regrets. “Principles are more important than gold medals,” she explained in a USA Today profile.
Quirot’s chance to prove herself on the international level came in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She won double gold medals in the 400 and 800 meters at the 1987 Pan American Games, then in 1989 turned in an undefeated year in the 800 meter race. Her string of 39 consecutive victories in the 800, as well as her dominance at that distance in 1989, led to her being chosen as female athlete of the year by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
Going into the 1991 Pan American Games ranked at or near the top in both the 400 and 800, Quirot dazzled the hometown crowd by winning gold medals in both races and breaking the Pan Am records at both distances. Few victories were ever sweeter for Quirot—she had helped to carry the bricks and mortar that built the stadium in which the games were played. At the awards ceremony, she took off one of her gold medals and placed it around the neck of her hero and friend, Fidel Castro.Chicago Tribune contributor Philip Hersh wrote:“It was at the 1991 Pan Am Games in Havana that Quirot became the sporting symbol of Cuba’s revolution, to which she always has credited her success.”
Another challenge presented itself: the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. There, in the early weeks of a pregnancy, Quirot ran the 800 in 1:56.80 for a bronze medal. Widely admired for her beauty as well as her talent, she seemed poised to take the world by storm. No one could have foreseen the strange turn her life would take in the wake of an unfortunate freak accident.
On January 23, 1993, Quirot—then seven months pregnant—was preparing to launder clothes in her apartment. A long-standing economic embargo of Cuba by Western nations combined with a cessation of aid from the Socialist bloc had led to severe shortages in Havana of nearly everything from gasoline to soap. Like many other Cubans, Quirot used a small kerosene-powered cookstove to do her laundry. She thought the stove was not lit when she added isopropyl alcohol to the
hot water in the pot. The alcohol spilled over the lip of the pot, ran down the side and burst into flames when it hit the kerosene burner. In seconds Quirot was engulfed in a fire that burnt 38 percent of her body and brought her to the verge of death.
Quirot regained consciousness in the burn unit at Havana’s Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital to find Fidel Castro standing at her bedside. “I will run again,” she told him. At the time she was not aware of the damage that had been done. She passed in and out of shock as her system reacted to the burns. Her baby, born prematurely, died. And her once-legendary beauty was marred by scars on her face and neck.
Nor was Quirot exempt from the speculation that surrounds any celebrity in the face of an accident. Rumors abounded that she had attempted suicide after ending her relationship with fellow track star Javier Sotomayor, the father of the deceased baby. Others said she had started the fire to try to win Sotomayor back. Quirot offered no explanations at the time, but she has since said the accident was just that, and that Sotomayor had actually been quite supportive during her recovery. “When you’re famous, people are always speculating—and never in your favor,” she told Sports Illustrated.“Sometimes it’s good to be famous. Sometimes it’s bad.”
Facing numerous skin-graft operations and a very lengthy recovery period, Quirot fought depression and hopelessness by working out even in her hospital room. Within two months of the accident she was riding a stationary bike and running up and down the stairs in the hospital. She was released after three months, to the amazement of a hospital staff that had first thought she would not live and then thought her recovery would take a year. Less than four months after the fire, she was back on the track.
Quirot’s training time was restricted to the early morning and late evening hours when the sun could not hurt her damaged skin, and her ability to move was restricted by the scar tissue on her stomach, arms, and hands. Still she persisted. Her fighting spirit was intact. “It wasn’t only to win again that I drove myself, but to draw myself out,” she explained in the Chicago Tribune.“If I hadn’t been an elite athlete, I believe I wouldn’t have made it. In competitive sport, you learn to go beyond your
In November of 1993 Quirot won a silver medal in the 800 meter at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Her monumental victory helped to ease the sting of a mass defection of Cuban athletes at that event. When she returned to Havana, Castro declared her achievement “one of the most impressive things we’ve ever seen in our lives.” For her part, Quirot gave thanks to the Cuban government for her recovery. Overlooking the fact that the accident was caused by shortages of everyday items such as detergent, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Without the Cuban revolution, my life would not have been saved. With all the drugs to pay for, with food to pay for my family while they stayed with me at the hospital, that would have cost me millions of dollars, which I don’t have. I am very proud to live in my country.”
Quirot was 29 when the accident occurred and was therefore believed to be in the twilight of her career anyway. She had other ideas, however. After missing the 1994 track season for no less than a dozen rounds of plastic surgery, she returned to contention in the 800 in 1995. At the world championships in Göteborg, Sweden in the summer of that year, Quirot won the gold medal in the 800 meter race before a crowd of 42,453 at Ullevi Stadium. Not only did the gold medal reestablish Quirot as a force to be reckoned with in the 800, it also made her the world champion going into an Olympic year. She was thrilled. “In my worst moments, I never thought I could come back so strongly,” she told the Chicago Tribune after the race.“This is the most beautiful victory of my life.”
Quirot faced many tough competitors at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta: Maria Mutola of Mozambique, the 1994 world champion; America’s Meredith Rainey; Letitia Vriesede of Surinam; and blonde-haired Svetlana Masterkova of Russia. She also faced the challenges of time and health—at 33 she had been running her event for 20 years. Prior to the Olympics she said that she would be pleased just to make the final in the 800. Not only did she make the final, she ran for a silver medal finish, a split second behind Masterkova.
Returning to a hero’s welcome in Cuba, Quirot indicated that the silver medal in the Olympics would be the crowning achievement of her competitive career. She planned to retire from racing, but not from the “revolution.” A career coaching running hopefuls in Cuba is probable, as well as a marriage and family (Quirot’s first husband, wrestler Raul Cascaret, died in an automobile accident).
Quirot stepped down in 1996 after having become Cuba’s most famous—and favorite—female athlete. Her fame in the international arena is assured as well, both as a symbol of fighting back from devastating injury and as a spokesperson for a struggling nation. She concluded in the Philadelphia Inquirer that sports had saved her life—that without her will to run again she would not have lived through her accident. “If I had not run again, I believe I would have died,” she said.“And when I started training again, that gave me life.”
Chicago Tribune, August 13,1995, p. 14; August 14, 1995, p. 4.Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1991, p. CI; August
14, 1995, p. C8; July 21, 1996, p. SI.New York Times Magazine, June 23, 1996, p. 43.Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1996, p. E5.Sports Illustrated, May 22, 1995, pp. 48-55.USA Today, August 8, 1991, p. C8.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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