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In Love with Ana
Melissa Segura
August 02, 2004
The 400-meter world champ and Olympic favorite is the unlikeliest of heroes in a country long ruled by machismo
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August 02, 2004

In Love With Ana

The 400-meter world champ and Olympic favorite is the unlikeliest of heroes in a country long ruled by machismo

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The doors to her bus were open, but Ana Gabriela Guevara couldn't step down. "Ana!" shrieked the masses, pushing, pulling and elbowing to see her, to smell her, to be near the one their nation's press had dubbed Su Majestad Ana Primera (Her Majesty Ana the First). Security couldn't hold them back. Mexico's hope for a first Olympic track and field medal in an event besides race walking, the 27-year-old Guevara was supposed to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of Mexico City on this June evening. If she could just push...through...the...crowds.


How did it get this crazy?

Guevara took up track after failing to make the national basketball team. Wasn't it just eight years ago that Guevara, heartsick after being left off Mexico's national basketball team, tried track on a whim? Wasn't it only a couple of years later that, having discovered her gift for the 400 meters, she was still struggling to find sponsors and was bringing homemade tamales to meets so she wouldn't have to pay for food? The crowds, the cameras, her likeness in Mexico's national wax museum-all the result of her No. 1 world ranking in the 400, her 24-race unbeaten streak in finals from August 2001 until July 2, and her gold medal, Mexico's first, at last year's world championships in Paris. But Anamania is not only about breaking records; it's also about shattering stereotypes.

Mexico has long been a bastion of machismo. It's a place where in some factories women have to prove they're not pregnant by showing bosses their used sanitary napkins, where nearly twice as many women as men earn less than the minimum wage, and where slightly fewer than 50% of girls aged 16 to 19 attend school. Women's sports have traditionally been scoffed at—until now.

"With Ana, people on all levels of society are starting to accept that a woman can be an athlete and one of the best in the world," says her agent and countryman Germ�n Silva, who placed sixth in the 10,000 meters in Barcelona in 1992 and sixth in the marathon four years later in Atlanta. "She's really changed the point of view for the general public."

So great is Guevara's star power that despite a 2000 survey that found that only about 1% of Mexican women over age 20 run, the likes of Nike and Powerade have signed Guevara to lucrative sponsorship deals. (A Powerade spokesman says that sales of the drink in Mexico have jumped 20% since Guevara came on board in 2002.) Mexican president Vicente Fox regularly calls Guevara to congratulate her on victories, and his wife, Marta, gushes, "She confirms that for the new Mexican woman of the 21st century, there are no limits."

Rosario Iglesias Rocha proves as much. For the last 68 years the 93-year-old Iglesias, who's known as Chayito, has run up and down high-rise apartment buildings in Mexico City delivering newspapers. In 1990 a customer noticed how quickly she navigated the stairwells and suggested she try competitive running. Since turning 80, Iglesias has won 104 medals and set 25 international masters records.

Dressed in blue-and-white sweatpants and a white shirt, Iglesias was ready to take the Olympic torch from Guevara and run the last 400 yards of the relay before lighting a cauldron in the Z�calo, Mexico City's main plaza. Except that Guevara was nowhere to be found; she was still on her bus, surrounded by the adoring masses. Rain poured from the sky, but the crowd remained so thick that Guevara had no place to go.

The decision was made to substitute a different runner, so Guevara never touched the torch. Instead she had to watch TV sports personality Jos� Ram�n Fern�ndez run her leg of the relay. Chayito took the torch from Fernandez and ambled past little girls wearing running shoes. Even the men were cheering.

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