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Quirot Completes Miracle Comeback : Track and field: Cuban runner wins world championship in 800 meters 2 1/2 years after her near-fatal house fire.


GOTEBORG, Sweden — Ana Fidelia Quirot removed her sunglasses and made a demand of those crowded around her, a congenial one but still a demand. "Look at me," she said. "My smile, my laughing eyes, they are the same as before. I am the same woman as before."

It was a Thursday, the sixth day of track and field's World Championships, and Quirot of Cuba had just won her first-round heat in the 800 meters.

She seemed self-conscious while marching through the gauntlet of television cameras on the side of the track, draping a sweat shirt around her shoulders. But in the interview tent with newspaper reporters, she was more relaxed, showing them the scars on her hands, arms, neck and face while talking about the fire that almost took her life.

On Jan. 23, 1993, three years after she was ranked first in the world in the 400 and 800 meters and five months after she won a bronze medal in the 800 at the Barcelona Olympics, she was engulfed by flames from the kerosene cooker in the kitchen of her Havana apartment, suffering third-degree burns over 38% of her body.

Doctors feared that she might not survive, a concern that she now says was foremost in her mind as well. But when she returned to consciousness and saw Fidel Castro, wearing a surgical mask, standing vigil by her bed, these were the first words that came from her mouth: "I'm going to run again."

She would run again, and on Sunday before a near-capacity crowd of 42,453 at Ullevi Stadium, she became a world champion. It should be noted that Mozambique's Maria Mutola, the overwhelming favorite after winning 42 races in a row, was not in the 800 final after her disqualification in the semifinals, but who, knowing the much greater challenges that Quirot has overcome, could consider her victory anything other than complete?

"In my worst moments, I never thought that I could come back so strongly," she said. "This is the most beautiful victory of my life."

Quirot provided the Fifth World Championships with an inspired and inspiring conclusion. The United States won three gold medals Sunday, all in relays, to dominate the nine-day meet with 12.

This meet, however, was not about countries or regions but athletes, and none had stories more compelling than Quirot's.

If other Cuban athletes are to be believed, Quirot's dance with death was actually a suicide attempt. They say that she was distressed by her breakup with Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor, whose baby she was carrying. She lost the baby in the hospital.

In an interview last week, she did not deny that version, or any other, saying: "The part that really disturbs me is that people talk about the accident as if they were in my house when it happened. I try to ignore that. I'm the only one who knows the truth, and I'm not going to tell you what it is."

She made it clear, however, that she was committed to living when she awoke in the hospital.

"When I first opened my eyes, my first thought was, 'Am I going to live?,' not, 'Am I going to compete again?' " she said. "I didn't ask the doctors if I would be able to run again. The only question was whether I could save my life."

But it was because of the competitive spirit she had called upon as a runner that doctors believed she would survive, and with a psychologist encouraging her to use that drive in her recovery, she was back on the track 11 months after the fire to finish second in the 800 to Suriname's Letitia Vriesde at the Central American and Caribbean Games.

Seven skin-graft surgeries in the next eight months forced her out of the 1994 season, but she returned this summer to discover she was still among the elite. "I had to be able to run at the level of before the accident or I wouldn't have come back," she said. She had no reason to even dream, however, that at age 32 she would become a world champion.

She did that Sunday with a kick that she was not sure she still had, winning in the world's fastest time this year, 1 minute, 56.11 seconds. Vriesde was second in 1:56.68.

Before Quirot had time to catch her breath, she was in the grasp of Alberto Juantorena, the 1976 Olympic 400 and 800 champion from Cuba and now a high-ranking international track and field federation official, who swung her around until she was dizzy.

There will be dancing when she returns to the Cuban province of Oriente, where she and Castro and Juantorena are from, she said Sunday. "My home village is expecting me with open arms," she said. "We will have a grande fiesta ."

World Championships Notes

Michael Johnson, having already won an unprecedented double in the men's 200 and 400 meters, each in near-record time, anchored the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team to a 25-meter victory in 2:57.23. He was the only competitor to collect three gold medals. Johnson, given a 15-meter lead by Marlon Ramsey, Derek Mills and Butch Reynolds, ran a 44.12 final leg. . . . The United States also swept both women's relays, taking the 400 in 42.12--best in the world this year--as Gwen Torrence outdueled Jamaican rival Merlene Ottey on the anchor leg, and the 1,600 in 3:22.39.

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