"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."