Athletics: Engquist's recovery sets shining example

Simon Turnbull charts a rapid and remarkable fight against cancer
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The Independent Online
THE IRONY will not be lost on Merlene Ottey as she ponders her future with a positive nandrolone test clouding her distinguished record as the most bemedalled athlete in world championship history, but Ludmila Engquist was once in the same position. In 1993, while she was preparing for the defence of her 100m hurdles world title, the Russian-born Swede got caught in the drugs net. She tested positive for anabolic steroids at an indoor meeting in Lievin and was issued with a four-year ban by the All-Russia Athletic Federation. Six years later, though, Engquist is being feted in Seville as the inspirational star of the seventh World Championship show.

"I've read that I'm supposed to be superwoman," Marion Jones said. "But Ludmila is far more deserving of the title than me. She's certainly my hero." As well, indeed, she might be.

It took a bizarre turn of events to clear Engquist - or Narozhilenko, as she was at the time. She was reinstated in December 1995 under the International Amateur Athletic Federation's "exceptional circumstances" rule after the Russian courts accepted an admission from her former husband and coach, Nikolai Narozhilenko, that he had spiked her vitamin supplements in a pique of jealousy. She subsequently married the man with whom she had been conducting an affair, her agent Johan Engquist, moved to Sweden and changed nationality.

In the yellow and blue vest of her adopted country she won the Olympic title in Atlanta in 1996 and a second world title in Athens. She does not, however, need a gold medal-winning performance here to eclipse even the multi-talented Jones as the heroine of the championships. Simply making it to Seville has been more than sufficient to guarantee that. It is only four months since Engquist was told she was suffering from breast cancer.

"My first reaction was that I did not want to live any longer," she reflected, casting her mind back to the April day when her doctor broke the news. "It was a terrible shock to learn at 35 that I had something that could kill me. But then, when the shock subsided, I told myself I could not have survival as my only goal. I vowed to keep training and to come back as an athlete. It was good for me to have that goal. It helped me through."

Engquist's blue eyes still mist over at the thought of how far she has come in four months. She has gone from death's door to the brink of the World Championship podium. She has had her right breast removed and undergone six chemotherapy sessions. Yet she lines up for the heats of the 100m hurdles on Wednesday as one of the leading contenders. "It seems a near miracle to me," she said, shaking her head. "I am the sort who likes the challenge of what seems impossible, but four months ago it seemed inevitable that I would not race again."

Engquist has not only raced again but raced at high speed over the women's high hurdles. Three weeks ago she made a stunning return to competition at the DN Galan grand prix meeting in Stockholm, beating a world-class field in 12.68sec. She has since finished fourth in Monaco, third in Cologne and second in Zurich, on each occasion clocking between 12.66sec and 12.70sec.

Olga Shishigina, the Khazakstan athlete who leads the world rankings with 12.47sec, will start as favourite. But a World Championship medal of any colour would be a remarkable accomplishment for Engquist, who has vowed to throw her plastic right breast into the crowd if she achieves her long-term goal of successfully defending her Olympic title in Sydney next year.

"I am just glad to be alive and feeling good," she said. "I feel like an athlete again but I am still having difficulty coming to terms with what has happened to me as a woman. But I have met so many wonderful women who have gone through the same thing as me and they have kept my spirits up. What I achieve in the future will be as much for them as for me. So many people believe cancer is the end. I want to prove it's an amber light, not a red. I want to reach out and be an inspiration."

Engquist, who resumed training four days after her mastectomy and who has refused to take pills to relieve the pain and sickness, says she has taken her inspiration from another cancer sufferer who has worn yellow this summer: the Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong. But she could have found a suitable role model from someone within her own event. Indeed, it is ironic to reflect that at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo it was Engquist who denied Gail Devers a golden return from the brink of tragedy.

The Seattle preacher's daughter went on to win the 1992 Olympic 100m and the 1995 100m hurdles world title, but she took the silver behind Engquist eight years ago - less than a year after she had been belatedly diagnosed as suffering from the life threatening thyroid condition Graves' Disease. "I was two weeks away from being cancerous when the doctors realised it wasn't just athlete's foot," Devers recalled.

Devers' run in the 100m heats yesterday was her first for six weeks because of injury. Even those who have climbed the biggest hurdles can get hamstrung from time to time.