By Jhonah Diaz Gonzalez (OnCuba)
HAVANA TIMES — Ana Fidelia used to run – or, better, fly – around the world’s 800-meter tracks. This woman from Santiago de Cuba, popularly known as the “Storm of the Caribbean,” became an athletics legend near the end of the 1980s, when she showed herself nearly invincible, winning more than 30 consecutive races between 1987 and 1991.
Born in Palma Soriano in 1963, she has a record of achievements that is almost unparalleled, eclipsed only by the absence of an Olympic gold medal. She is one of the best 800-meter track runners of all time, who even managed to become world champion on several occasions, after enduring grade 3 burns on a large part of her body following an accident at home halfway through her career.
At her home in Havana’s neighborhood of Playa, OnCuba spoke with Fidelia, an icon, a symbol of perseverance, and one of the most renowned figures in the history of Cuban sports.
When did you feel closer to the Olympic title, in Barcelona 1992 or Atlanta 1996?
In Atlanta. Many people say I underestimated Mutola a bit, but I don’t believe that’s true. I didn’t do what I had to do in the race, tactically, what my coach and the entire work team had planned for me, including the doctors, psychologists and others. The race became slow and the two Russians cut me off. I tried to overtake them in the last 120 meter stretch, open up a bit and get out to the third track, but I let them get ahead some, I ran more than I had to. Though I tried to finish off with that sprint that was my hallmark, I had to content myself with a silver medal, which was better than the bronze in Barcelona.
Do you still suffer over that moment in the race?
It’s something I carry with me – and will always carry – in my heart. So many years among the world’s best runners, and having been the best for a while, even, with distinctive traits, and I couldn’t manage to get a gold medal at the Olympics. I can’t forgive myself for it.
What comes to mind when I mention the name of Svetlana Aleksandrovna Masterkova?
She’d never beat me before, but she did it at that precise minute during the Olympics. I beat her twice after that, but she was better where she had to be.
Your speed and finishing sprint were some of your distinctive skills on the track. What was going through your mind when the broad strides of Masterkova got her ahead of you in the final stretch?
It was very sad for me, to think my sporting career was going to end there, for I wouldn’t get another chance to take part in a sporting event of that significance. That’s what I was thinking: “I lost my Olympic medal,” and I couldn’t wait another four years.
If you got another shot in another life, a different moment, right now, what would you change?
Take the lead, no one could keep up with me there, run without any fear that things might not work out and give my all until crossing the finishing line. I should have done that in Atlanta, rather than find a comfortable spot behind my rivals. Prove I was number one.
How many times did you dream of breaking the 800-meter track world record?
Never, but I knew I could do it, that I had the potential for it. That said, I never did prepare for it, and, when I say this, I mean that I never prepared to do it at a particular race, because I was ready for anything. The medical check-ups, the test, confirmed I was in good shape. Today, in the Diamond League, racers run next to hares during the partials so they will overtake them and break the record, but I was never told “we know from your results that you can break the record.”
What was the hardest moment of your sporting career?
In 1993, before the Central American Games in Ponce, and the training after my accident. I think that was the toughest moment. It was all commitment, sacrifice and will.
Was it also the most complicated point in your life?
Yes, because I was on the brink of dying and those moments are very, very difficult, for any person. It was thrilling to overcome that life challenge and every obstacle in my way. Today, I am still grateful to Cuba’s medical system, to the psychologists and the doctors in the multi-disciplinary team at the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, to my family and friends. I also thank many other people who weren’t doctors but went there to cheer me up and encourage me to keep going with the rehab, children in Cuba and abroad who gave me the energy to continue in the sport and to secure more victories for my country.
But, among the many factors that helped me, the main one was the encouragement that Fidel Castro gave me. He was always there to support me, from the first day of my accident until my retirement. That was the extra push I needed to keep going.
Which moment in your career do you consider to be the most sublime?
The 1995 World Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the gold medal I won there. First of all, because of everything that had happened, the effort, because I had to put up quite a fight to get there, and because, for me, it was a special day, August 13, Fidel Castro’s birthday, a day I paid back Fidel all of the moral and emotional support he’d given me.
Have you been able to keep in touch with Fidel in recent years?
No, I’d love to! If only life would give me the chance to hold his hand again. After he fell ill, I haven’t been able to be close to him, but I do know about his state of health thanks to people very close to him, relatives, and they tell me he’s doing ok.
How do you spend your time these days?
I am devoted to my children’s education. I work in the National Athletics Commission, in the Public Relations Department. I also participate in all of the activities we are invited to, be them political, cultural or sports-related, by the Athletes Commission. Everyone wants the champions to meet with their employees, all organizations, and for you to visit children with cancer at hospitals, for us to take them toys and talk to them. It’s a rewarding and humanitarian task. But my main task today is to raise my children properly, so that they can make their way in life.
Tell us about your family.
I have two children. Carla Fidelia is 15 and is going to the National Ballet School. Alberto Alejandro is 14. He’s training to become a runner. He started at 10, but children, who aren’t very stable, go with what’s cool at a given moment. He’d signed up for soccer, which he’s also very good at. Now, he’s back in athletics, which I believe is his discipline, genetically. He’s got a good resistance index and he’s a quick and physically well prepared kid.
My husband, Riccardo Folle, is an Italian businessman. We’ve been together for 17 years. We’ve started this beautiful family together, and it’s been the best.
What would you say you’re missing in your life?
Besides the Olympic gold, I can’t ask for anything more in life. It would be a little selfish if I did. I believe that I’m happy, very happy, just the way I am.