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Flash Forward to Mexico

Rising fast in track, Guevara is changing way her country defines its sport stars

May 27, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — As she turned the final corner for the home stretch, the dull roar of suspense, once as thick as the smog in the crowded Mexican capital, turned into a wail of nationalistic pride.

Olympic Stadium, site of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games that produced several world records as well as the black-gloved, one-fisted salute, shook at its foundation, a crowd exceeding 50,000 whipping itself into a flag-waving, chest-thumping frenzy in anticipation of another revolutionary event.

It was May 3 and Ana Guevara, whose rock-star status as Mexico's latest sporting hero is as improbable as it is huge, had paced herself through the first two turns of the women's 300-meter race, the marquee event of the inaugural Banamex Grand Prix.

Until the home stretch.

Feeding off of the energy, Guevara, with her magnificent kick, blew by the field, while the red, white and green-clad spectators witnessed a world record when she crossed the finish line in 35.30 seconds.

That Guevara shattered an 18-year-old mark by 0.16 of a second was indeed cause for celebration. More impressive is that she has shifted the social climate of a nation's sporting public. Mexico has fallen in love with an athlete who is neither a soccer player nor a man.

"Everything begins and ends with the national team and soccer," Guevara said two days after the meet, which resulted in front-page coverage for her in newspapers across the country. "There has never been a meet like this. Things are starting to even out, and I'm very happy and content about that. It was difficult because it's never been [considered] a sport in Mexico. Now, I can't even explain the mania. You have to be here to understand it."

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Ana-mania, which has won over the hearts and minds of her people in astonishingly quick fashion, bears an uncanny resemblance to the cultural phenomenon that overtook the Southland in the early 1980s, when thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans celebrated the exploits of Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.

But while Fernandomania knew no borders and was just as big a fiesta in Mexico as it was at Dodger Stadium, Guevara's popularity is still a curiosity in the United States.

That's why Guevara, 26, who grew up the eldest of five children in the border town of Nogales, makes no apologies for declaring that she is looking forward to spreading the gospel of track, as well as her growing legend.

"It's the fame, not only here in Mexico but in other places that makes this so fun and worthwhile," said Guevara, who now lives in Hermosillo. "It's very important for the people in the United States, for the Latino people there to see what this all means."

They'll get their chance Sunday as Guevara runs in the women's 400 in the Home Depot Track & Field Invitational in Carson.

The 400 is Guevara's signature event -- she won all 11 races in which competed last year -- and she made her U.S. debut on Saturday in Eugene, Ore., winning the race in a Prefontaine Classic meet-record 49.34.

Among those left in her wake was Australian Olympic gold medalist Cathy Freeman, who was running in her first international 400 since the Sydney Games in 2000 and also was beaten three weeks earlier in Mexico City in the seldom-run 300.

Guevara's popularity -- she has had numerous audiences with Mexico President Vicente Fox -- has caused the normally staid Mexican sports media -- all men, all soccer, all the time -- to take notice.

"In amateur sports, we also have good athletes in diving and taekwondo," said Ivis Aburto Lopez, a sportswriter for the Mexico City daily, Reforma. "But Ana is the only one with the potential of filling a stadium. Not being related to soccer is a big thing for us. It's starting to develop other sporting tastes for Mexico, and it's good for the minor sports because Ana is seen as an inspiration."

Guevara burst onto the track scene at the 2000 Olympics, the unknown sprinter from a country known in track circles primarily for its race walkers, finishing fifth in the 400.

"That's what got everyone's attention," Lopez said.

Her subsequent winning streak and No. 1 world ranking has given Mexican women something Guevara missed while growing up in a male-dominated society -- a female sporting hero. Now, thousands, if not millions, of girls look up to her.

"The process has changed, a role reversal is going on," said Guevara, whose childhood idols were Valenzuela and soccer star Hugo Sanchez. "I'm a role model and people admire me. That is very satisfying. I like it. I like it very much."

But isn't the pressure of being a trailblazer overwhelming?

"No, not at all," she said. "There's pressure when you do bad things. When you do good things, there's no pressure."

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A decidedly Forrest Gump moment jump-started Guevara's career on the track.

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