"I didn't think she'd ever be able to run again," says Clara V�liz, 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," V�liz 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? S�. With Fidel? S�. With Sotomayor? S�. 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 El�ades 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.