It’s a crime that Cuban cinema has not dedicated a feature film to Ana Fidelia Quirós (Palma Soriano, 1963), the indomitable storm that circled the track twice at an indescribable pace. Her life has everything to put together a script that would perfectly intertwine human talent with her will for sacrifice to come out ahead in the most difficult moments.
The plot would have its starting point in Maribel, a neighborhood in Palma Soriano where Ana Fidelia won her first races, not on a track, but in parks and roads. There she began her training, her take-off until she became the best runner of her generation and the fifth at the international level who has devoured the fastest the 800 meters in the history of athletics.
Then would come the tragic chapter, the accident that put her on the brink of death, and the subsequent recovery — almost miraculous — that allowed her to return to the tracks with a force never seen before, to the point of registering her name as the only Cuban Olympic multi-medalist runner in individual events.
Those are, broadly speaking, the cardinal points in the history of Ana Fidelia, the last great star of the Cuban tracks, a woman who never loses her smile and who still transmits that feeling of inexhaustible strength, with which she imposes on us an extremely fast pace from the first curve and leads us to a fabulous race, full of revelations.
What are roots for Ana Fidelia?
I always talk about my roots because I have not forgotten the humble neighborhood where I started in sports, my people, my friends, and because one must be consistent and grateful to the people who love you, to the people who supported you, to your people, to your family. I don’t do it as often anymore because of all the activities and now because of the pandemic, but I like to go back there, walk the streets of Palma Soriano, walk down the river as I used to do….
I love to go back and talk with people, remember happy moments from my childhood, from when I was little. Every time I go and walk through Maribel, my neighborhood, people don’t let me get to my house. I always see my relatives last, because on every corner I have to greet someone. It is something that characterizes us Cubans; being unassuming, being kind, and being grateful.
I am very grateful to all the people in Palma who influenced my growth as an athlete. For them I will always be “La Pille,” that’s how they called me and still call me. All of this is part of our identity, of our roots.
Palma Soriano has as many Olympic and world champions and medalists as many countries. What is the territory’s secret?
What’s happened with Palma has been going on for a long time and it is not about one or two disciplines, because we have champions in wrestling, judo, boxing, athletics, baseball, fencing, basketball…. The pioneer in the sport is Ramón Echevarría, catcher of the Oriente teams and of the national team in the 1960s, and later in baseball there were Orestes Kindelán, Antonio Pacheco….
But that’s not all. Guillermo Betancourt was a silver medalist in foil at the Barcelona Olympic Games, Estela Rodríguez shone in judo, the Caballero brothers in basketball. And so many more, so much so that, for example, if Palma Soriano competed as a country it would have been among the top ten in the table of medals at the Pan American Games in Havana in 1991.
I think that boom has to do with how future athletes were attracted. I remember that when I started in sports, I saw how coaches, without having a designed program, went to schools and looked for children who liked sports, those with the best somatotype, the fastest, the tallest, and tried to “woo” them to do physical activities.
Starting that, a period of splendor came that today we need to recover, because the results we have in the sports field are not even remotely the same.
What has changed and what has caused this setback? Do you see many differences between the talent recruitment and development process of 50 years ago and today?
From my perspective, the grassroots work, which for decades was one of the main strengths of the Cuban sports movement, has been lost a bit. Before, the teacher of the area had to go out, without anyone sending him, to observe everything there was in the schools, to look for kids with certain qualities. The fundamental objective was to bring as many athletes as possible to the Provincial Games so that the municipality would stand out. I don’t see that now.
It’s true that times have changed, they are different times, but one has to find motivation on one’s own, set goals for oneself and work to achieve them. I think that from the moment you have a result, then the incentives can come, but you have to earn it. Before there were no free awards, good coaches were recognized for the number of athletes they managed to take to higher levels.
That’s why I think you have to do a bit of awareness, encourage the work of the coaches, the activists, the physical education teachers, because many of the athletes who have formed part of national teams at different times come from those same classes. I myself was selected for what I did at school, and so was my sister.
I think we must see what was done in the past and take the best, the positive, what can be adapted to the new, and apply it together with modern trends for the recruitment and training of talents. This is an essential way to recover, little by little, the level of the Cuban sports movement.
Who discovered Ana Fidelia?
As I already told you, everything starts with physical education. I really liked running and doing any sporting activity, whether volleyball or basketball, and I liked to compete. In the relays, if my team was at a disadvantage, I would go out and put it ahead.
Then, one day in October 1974, Professor Héctor took me and a group of girls from the Primero de Mayo school to do some physical efficiency tests at the José Martí Sports Center, in Palma Soriano. I ran 20 meters and José Luis Arañado, who took my time, was impressed.
Right away he told Juan Heredia Salazar, who would later be my first coach, and they both talked with me to see if I wanted to do sports. At that time, I was in a special school because I had problems with mathematics, but I overcame them; they took me out of that center and I started practicing athletics in the mornings and in the afternoon I received classes.
More or less that’s the story of how they discovered me. I only remember that everything was very fast, already at 12 I was competing with athletes older than me and I was beating them. Shortly after, I would be representing Cuba in an international tournament in Hungary.
What was the youthful Ana Fidelia like? What were your dreams in those 1970s?
My dream was to represent Cuba in the Olympic Games, especially after the rage unleashed with Juantorena’s two titles in Montreal (1976). Imagine then how I felt when I was with him, Silvio Leonard or Alejandro Casañas on the same team during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Medellin in 1978.
I was a 14-15-year-old girl when I competed there in the 4 × 400 relay and I felt that I was in the clouds, because it is an event of great magnitude and, in addition, I had the opportunity to be next to those stars. It was a great inspiration and motivation to work and try to be like them.
Your progression as a runner was meteoric and at 26 you already had the fifth best record of all time (1:54.44 minutes) in 800 meters, as well as the national and continental record. What were the keys to preparation in those first years in the elite?
The most important thing was to achieve continuity when I was in good shape, and to know how to recover when I went through a bad moment. You have to deal with both, because the life of an athlete is one of constant ups and downs.
For example, during the 1980-1981 period I was removed from the national team due to a supposed drop in my performance and because I had returned from an international event a little overweight. I kept running fast and my criteria was that they had made a wrong decision, but I did not protest too much, I only focused on working and training hard.
In the end, in 1981, I got my place back. I never gave up, I knew that I was not finished, that I had youth, desire to continue in the sport and support from many people, and with that I got ahead. Now, both in these circumstances and when everything is fine, the fundamental thing is to do your best.
I would get up early and go out to train along the beach or in Lenin Park. I would run barefoot on the sand from the Mégano to the end of Guanabo, or I would jump or do shot puts. I rested at noon and in the evening another three-hour training session. Therein lay the keys to success. I was never afraid of work, no matter how strong it was.
You won more than 30 races in a row between 1987 and 1990. Did you see yourself as a champion at the 1988 Seoul Olympics?
Yes, I saw myself as an Olympic champion. Maybe not in 400 meters, but in the 800 I did see myself as a champion. I had beaten all the runners, even the Soviet one who took the 400 and I had defeated her in a Grand Prix before the Games. But hey, it was decided that Cuba would not participate and I had to withdraw without that title.
In the Olympic finals in Barcelona (1992), the Dutch Ellen van Langen — a woman who had never run below 1:56 and who never fell below that time again — recorded the best mark of her career and took the crown. To what extent were you surprised by that performance?
I knew that Van Langen was running well, as was Liliya Nurutdinova (the silver medal winner), who, by the way, it was discovered she was doped in 1993, a few months after the Games. That they were ahead of me in Barcelona did not surprise me, because that year was very difficult due to the few competitions with which I arrived at the Olympics.
I injured my right leg during the altitude training base that we did in Mexico and I couldn’t do an intensity race, a misfortune, because I depended a lot on speed. Add to that the fact that, one month before the Games, my coach Blas Beato, who had taken me to the top, passed away.
They were all abnormal circumstances, mostly from a competitive point of view, because before my fundamental event each year I always had between 15 and 20 races in which I was progressively improving the records. In 1992 I did not run, and I felt it.
However, the fact of setting my best mark of the season in the finals, despite all the setbacks I had, gives me a certain level of satisfaction, because also, from a tactical point of view, my career was good and that allowed me win the bronze. The one who made a mistake in the strategy was Nurutdinova, who in the final stretch left a gap inside lane one for Van Langen and that did her in. In these races, if you want to pass, you have to pass on the outside, never on the inside.
Was the Olympic title a pending account for you?
Definitely. Everyone prefers the gold medal, especially when you’ve been at the top for so long, being the best runner in the world in that distance, winning every competition. Let’s say I deserved the title, but the sport is like that. Sometimes you go to the top, make a tactical mistake and lose, as I did in 1996.
In Atlanta I was in great shape, but my strategy failed and I had to settle for silver, behind Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova. Winning an Olympic gold is not easy, much less when you go alone, while some of the main rivals had teammates who ran for them. In 1996, (Yelena) Afanasyeva helped Masterkova a lot. I was alone against the world.
You speak of many rivals. Which one was the most difficult you faced in your career?
María de Lurdes Mutola. She made me very uncomfortable, she was very strong, very fast and very competitive. Many of my main battles were against her, we won, we lost, but in a general sense I think we made each other better.
Mutola knew how far I could go and I liked to challenge her, push her to the limit, especially when they took her into account with the nickname of “hare” to set relevant marks and they didn’t even say anything about me. That happened, to tell you just one case, in 1997, during a competition in Cologne, Germany, 15 days after my victory at the World Cup in Athens.
If I was the world champion, the number one, what were the reasons for giving Mutola the nickname of “hare” and not saying anything to me. It wasn’t that I disliked her, but she did give me a lot of strength to show what I could do. And that race in Cologne is a good example, because even though everything was set up for Mutola to set a good time, despite the fact that Mutola pushed me at 600 meters and almost took me off the track, despite all that, I won with 1: 54.82, the tenth best mark of all time in the 800 meters.
But hey, regardless of these things, I have always had very good relationships with all my rivals. Mutola, Masterkova, Leticia Vriesde…. I have tried to keep in touch with them after my retirement and show them my affection. I have written emails to them, although not all of them have responded.
January 22, 1993. Have you ever counted the memories you have of that day?
One always recounts the pleasant, positive things, but not the ugly and sad things one has lived. That day was horrible for me, for my family. I thought my sports career was going to end, but with the support of the people who inspired me, with the support of Fidel who was in the hospital right from the beginning, I found the strength and reasons to get out of bed.
They were moments of great anguish for the family, of great suffering, because after the doctors saved my life came a very hard recovery process. Regaining mobility, not only for sports exercise, but for everyday life, was extremely painful. It was not so important that I return to sports as that I recover physically and mentally to lead a normal life.
Many people doubted my recovery, but I did not doubt, especially based on the verbal commitment I made to the Comandante (Fidel Castro), and the letters or phone calls of many people. From that, I had to get the “extra” of the champions.
Fortunately, with the support of Cuban medicine and psychology, I was able to join high-performance sports again. Fighting for it was the best decision I ever made. Visible effects may remain from the accident, but there were no internal consequences. I am a fulfilled person from many points of view, first because of the family that I have managed to form and because of the successes in my professional career.
Before the accident you were an indisputable star, but afterwards you became a kind of fighting banner for many people who put you at the top of their altars. Were you fully aware that you had made such a deep impression among the Cuban and world fans?
I have always been unassuming, honest, modest, kind and that has allowed me to be very close to the fans all over the world. I have never believed that because I’m a public figure or a glory I am better than others, nor do I have the right to look down on anyone. It is my way of being and nobody is going to change it; I will continue to be the same smiling Ana Fidelia. Even the accident didn’t dampen my smile.
I say you can be a star, but to make a deep impression in the hearts of the people of your country or of any other place the most important thing is your way of being, your way of conducting yourself, your character, your behavior in front of anyone. Sometimes they greet me in the street and my son asks me if I know the people, but in reality that is the least of it. If someone greets you, why not smile back; if they ask me for a photo, why not say yes.
You have to be grateful, as they are with me. Sometimes they don’t let me stand in line, or if I get in a car they won’t let me pay. They are small details, but of great value, because they show me that people remember me and esteem me.
I’ve seen champions, or artists, who may have more merits than me, but they do not transcend so much among the people because they are arrogant, conceited. If you are a public figure, you owe it to the people. In the end we are all human beings, equal.
Fidel Castro said that “a miracle of science and technology came together with a miracle of human will” in order to save you. How much is there of a miracle, science and will in your recovery?
I think it’s half and half. When I got to the hospital I had second and third degree burns on 38% of my body, and it was impossible to guarantee that I would be saved, so certainly some see it as a miracle. But, on the other hand, the doctors made an enormous effort and deserve all the credit for their work.
They won their Olympic medal for the treatment they gave me, for the attention, for their efforts, for their perseverance. They helped me to take my first steps inside the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, where I did almost the entire rehabilitation process. I say that it’s is my second home, and today I still have the best relations with the doctors and paramedics who treated me. I will be eternally grateful.
The other percent of the recovery is mine. I drew strength from where there was none because I wanted to live, and those desires always kept me firm and focused on achieving new goals. I know that many people doubted that I would make it back, but every time I heard anything negative about my rehabilitation, it didn’t even bother me, that pushed me to work harder, to fight and fight.
In a work for the newspaper El País from 1995 you say that you never thought of recovering your previous state, however, you achieved a very high level again. From an athletic point of view, when did you realize that you could regain your usual potential?
When Fidel saw me for the first time after the accident, he told me that it didn’t matter if I didn’t run again, the important thing was that I recover and that I could continue with my life. But I made the commitment to return to the tracks, I wanted to return to the tracks, which I never thought to do at such a good level.
He had many doubts because I had practically lost the mobility of my arms and neck, which made it very difficult to move in the race. This problem could not be solved in the short term, since I had to wait a year for plastic surgeries, as indicated in the protocol with burn injuries.
Despite these limitations, I managed to run in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Ponce at the end of 1993, only a few months after the accident. At that moment, without even being at 60% of my capacity, I won a silver medal and I understood that if I underwent the surgeries I could compete at the highest level again.
It was when I began an intense process of plastic and reconstructive surgeries to regain the oscillation of the arms and the mobility in the damaged parts of the upper body (the hands, the armpits, the neck). I didn’t know if that would restore my strength, but I made it a point to go through all the necessary medical procedures and see if I could then get close to my best marks in training.
The subsequent physical preparation was very hard, but I saw the fruits right away. I remember that the illustrious Dr. Mario Granda always accompanied me to training sessions on the beach, on the Santa María hill. I would run downhill and he was in the car; he traveled a stretch, stopped, took my pulse, returned at the other stretch, and so on. He told me that my ability to recover from one stretch to another was impressive.
I think that was only possible because of the physical base that I had from before the accident, that helped me a lot to train hard and have the possibility of competing at the highest level again.
In November 1993, just ten months after the accident, you returned to the tracks at the Central American and Caribbean Games of Ponce in 1993. What memories do you have before the starting shot at the Francisco Montaner Stadium?
That race was the awakening. I remember people cheering for me in the stadium, and that gave me more confidence, it gave me strength to continue my big challenges, to really consider all surgical interventions.
I couldn’t win. I had a significant competitive and training deficit, in addition to having a great rival in the Surinamese Leticia Vriesde, who had reached bronze at the Pan American Games in Havana. I ended up with the silver medal, but the most important thing is that I started to lose my stage fright in the conditions I was in.
The Ponce 1993, Goteborg 1995, Atlanta 1996 and Athens 1997 finals must have a special flavor for you. Could any of them be said to be the most important race of your life?
I have two important races. The first, due to the magnitude of the mark, was in 1989 at the Barcelona World Cup, when I made the 1:54.44, the fifth record of all time in the 800 meters and the best in Cuba and the Americas. At that time, I was unbeatable, in a spectacular physical shape.
Now, on top of that, even though I didn’t achieve a superior result in terms of mark, is the 1995 World Cup finals in Goteborg, Sweden. It was August 13, I can’t forget it. That day, after losing almost a year of competition, after being on the verge of death, I was number one on the planet again.
I remember that that season was not easy, because I did not have the time to compete in the World Cup. At that time, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) gave a classification mark and each country could modify it minimally, but Cuba has always been committed to having finalists in major events and therefore wanted athletes to meet IAAF requirements.
The problem is that here in Havana, having no rivals, it was practically impossible for me to achieve the qualifying mark. I tried it in the Cup and in the Barrientos and I did not go below two minutes. So it was decided that I should leave the country without the required registration, to look for it abroad. There were some doubts about that idea, but I was convinced that if I tried myself in six or seven races before the World Cup, I could get what the IAAF wanted.
And that’s exactly how it was, in Monte Carlo, on July 25, 1995, I did 1:57.69 in a race that Mutola beat me with 1:57.40, both of us exhausted at the finish line. That was my mark for the Goteborg World Cup, where I lowered it even further to 1:56.11, and I took the gold.
That final in Sweden was the race of my dreams, the race of my life, and the race of gratitude, above all else. Thanks to the people who supported me, who encouraged me; gratitude to Cuban medicine; gratitude to the one who never abandoned me: my dear Comandante Fidel Castro.
Your last 800-meter race recorded by World Athletics is the final of the Central American and Caribbean Games in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1998, the year in which you weren’t able to get below two minutes in any competition. Looking back, would you have preferred not to race that season?
I wanted to retire in 1998 and I didn’t want to go to the Maracaibo Games, because I had not met the volume and intensity parameters in training, and had not participated in any competition. I got sick with hepatitis C and for a long time I was treated with Interferon, but I was not well, I could not achieve in the preparation things that I usually do with my eyes closed.
Look, I never stopped in a work session because of any pain, I never stopped, but that year I had to stop at different stages of the race. It was very difficult for me to maintain the pace and I did not feel prepared for those Central American and Caribbean Games, but they told me that I should be there as a standard bearer of the Games.
That’s why I went to Maracaibo, but in the long run I was right. I didn’t even enter the table of medals, despite the fact that the best in the 800 meters did not fall below two minutes. It was a very sad moment, because I would have liked to retire with a big bang.
Doping has greatly affected sports, particularly athletics. In that sense you are one of the world stars who nothing can be pointed out to her. How does one manage to stay totally apart from these tendencies in which many rivals have used to help themselves? How to isolate yourself and say “I’m not going to fall for this”?
The main thing is the education you get. In Cuba, since you start in high-performance sports, they tell you what doping is, that you can die young, that you can face different health problems or bear consequences as a human being.
Based on this, from that knowledge you learn, you can always stay away from doping in any of its manifestations. In Cuba we have always sought the best results, we have always been very competitive, but we have always ensured that we have healthy athletes, that when they retire they can lead a healthy life, form a family without risks.
In my case, I never took a spoonful of anything, it was difficult for me to take the recuperation drugs the medical staff gave us. They did hundreds of doping tests on me, I lost count, they even came to test me when I was pregnant. But my doping has always been to work hard, eat my training sessions and follow to the letter what the trainers told me.
Why hasn’t a new Ana Fidelia emerged in Cuban athletics?
Some athletes who have been able to compete with good results at the international level have done very good races today and horrible ones tomorrow. It is a phenomenon to analyze. We have been characterized for having runners in the 800 meters, from Juantorena, Norberto Téllez or Zulia Calatayud, who to a greater or lesser extent based their success on the stability of their performance, which is not seen now, there are many fluctuations.
I have no intention to judge anyone, but I think that is largely due to a lack of discipline. The athletes of today are not like those of my time. I can’t generalize, but many now question the coaches’ plans and want to do whatever they want. To me, the coach told me “turn upside down,” and I turned upside down, because doing what he was telling me I was a world champion. Now there are athletes who get to have good results and then they don’t want to listen to anyone.
I don’t mean that they shouldn’t complain, that they not argue, that they not question, that there be no debate, because that doesn’t make sense either, but what cannot happen is that you insubordinate and stop doing what they tell you to do.
In addition to talent, effort and the will to excel, what would be the other essential pillar in Ana Fidelia’s career?
My family. My mother always supported me unconditionally, since I was in the Capitán Orestes Acosta EIDE school, in Santiago de Cuba. Also, I come from a purely sports home. My dad was a professional boxer in the 1960s, good, but not disciplined. My sister was a member of the national basketball team, she decided the game that gave Cuba the ticket to the 1984 Olympic Games. My brother also passed through the ranks of the national athletics team.
We have been very supportive of each other throughout this time, but I owe them all twice as much because they have been a very important support for me, particularly during those difficult years after the accident.
After that, my children and my husband have been a kind of third Olympic medal in my career. They arrived at the right time and they have made me very happy during the last 20 years, they have given me new airs and strength to pursue new goals.
Without them, for example, I might not have achieved a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology, a huge achievement in my life. It’s something I don’t talk about much, but I take pride in struggling to improve myself and in applying in some way everything I learned from a psychological point of view during my recovery after the accident.
At first, I was a little afraid to get into that specialty, but thanks to the support of my family and the efforts of my tutor Marta Cañizares, I managed to graduate at the end of last year.
What does Cuba mean for you?
Perhaps in another country, being a poor black woman from a country town, I could have also become a champion, but it would have cost me much more work. Here I have received all the support to become what I am; here I have been able to study and prepare myself, I have been able to train as an athlete and professional; here I have not had to give up my dreams….
Cuba represents a lot. I’m eternally grateful to the country that saved my life. With all the money in the world, I wouldn’t be able to pay for all the treatment I got in the hospitals, all the plastic surgeries.… If I am born again, I would like it to be on this beautiful island, of solidarity, brotherhood and so much charisma.
For me, Cuba is my life.