Quirot puts Holmes in the shade

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The Independent Online
Kelly Holmes produced a performance that was heroic in athletics terms yesterday as she added an 800 metres bronze medal to the 1500m silver she won four days earlier, lowering the British record to 1min 56.95sec in doing so, writes Mike Rowbottom.

But her achievement was overshadowed by that of Ana Fidelia Quirot, of Cuba, who became world champion two years after suffering burns in a domestic accident that were so severe that they threatened not just her career, but her life. This was heroism in human terms.

Quirot, an Olympic bronze medallist in 1992, waited until Holmes had tracked down the early leader, Meredith Rainey of the United States, before passing her in the finishing straight to win in 1min 56.11sec, the fastest time in the world this year.

Letitia Vriesde, of Surinam, came through on the other side of Holmes to take silver in 1:56.68, but as Patricia Djate, of France, drew level with her in the final 10 metres the Army sergeant - despite looking as if she was running in combat boots - grimaced and hung on for her second medal of the championships. Her time bettered the national mark of 1min 57.42sec set by Kirsty Wade 10 years ago.

"After I had seen two go past me I just hung on, fighting and fighting all the way," Holmes said. "It inspired me to go one step further and dip on the line. I just didn't want to lose it. I knew it was going to be a fast race. I decided to go up in front and try to hold up there as long as I could.

"I planned before it started to go out and stay at the front. I found out from the 1500 how much harder it was to come from the back than to be at the front.

"I was beaten outright, there's no question about it. But I was so nervous before the race, so tense. I really wanted that gold but I ran other people's race. I didn't run my own race. I got through to the final and thought `I can do it' and I just went out there and did my best.

"I just dug in all the way. I just gritted my teeth and saw first one come past me and then another, but I thought `no-one else' and I was just digging in all the way. I don't think I would have done better if I had concentrated on one event. I came to win the 1500, and the 800 was going to be my bonus event. I've come out today with a bronze and a national record so I can't complain."

There will be no complaints, either, when she returns to her Army posting at Mill Hill. But the homecoming for Quirot will be a matter of national celebration in a country which has suffered increasing economic breakdown in the past five years.

Quirot, now 32 years old, was left with 38 per cent of her body covered in third degree burns after a kerosene cooker exploded at her house. The accident also caused her to give premature birth to a daughter, who died after a week.

Nurses at the hospital did not believe she would survive. But on 13 May 1993, less than four months after the accident, she removed her neck brace and bandages and ran for just over eight minutes on the track. The woman named after the architect of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, was on her way back.

The skin on her neck, face and hands is now dark and wrinkled with scar tissue. But she shone yesterday. "This is the most beautiful victory of my life," she said. One tear rolled down that disfigured, beautiful face as the Cuban anthem came to a close.

The final, it should be said, was diminished by the absence of the 1993 champion, Maria Mutola of Mozambique, who was disqualified for running out of her lane in the first round. But looking at the joy on Quirot's face, it was hard not to feel that there was an element of divine providence in operation.

The delight was not restricted to Quirot. Cuba's double Olympic champion, Alberto Juantorena, now a member of the IAAF Council, leapt out of his official seat and over the barrier to engulf Quirot in a whirling hug before handing her a Cuban flag and sending her on her way. Quirot's home village, too, is expecting her with open arms. "We will have a grand fiesta," she said.

Leandro Civil, Quirot's coach, was asked recently what made his athlete special. "Her will," he said. "That's what separates her from all the rest."