Swedish hurdler Ludmila Engquist swallowed hard, ran her hand through her short hair and sighed heavily several times into the microphone she held this morning. When she spoke, her words came haltingly.
"I don't really want to come back to this situation when I'm feeling not so good," Engquist said. "It's very sad. I came to compete here. I really don't want to speak about my chemotherapy."
If Engquist's story is difficult for her to tell, it's probably because she is still in the painful middle of it. Engquist, the reigning Olympic and world gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles, learned in March she has breast cancer. She had surgery to remove her right breast on April 21--her 35th birthday. She has undergone several chemotherapy sessions in the last four months. Another is scheduled for the second week of September.
Still, Engquist has continued to compete this summer, albeit sporadically, and begins qualifying rounds Wednesday in her event at the world track and field championships.
"I'm not sure today I can [win] a medal, but I'm very happy I am here today and competing," Engquist said. "It's very, very important."
Speaking with reporters on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Engquist wore a tank top, casual skirt and tennis shoes. She pulled off her dark glasses to reveal a new look: bright contact lenses in the yellow and blue cruciform design of the Swedish flag--specially ordered from Finland. She posed for the cameras, and was happy to talk about anything. Anything, that is, except her cancer.
She dismissed comparisons between herself and 1999 Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who battled testicular cancer two years ago. The way Engquist sees it, he is a cancer survivor.
She apparently believes she hasn't yet won that designation.
"He competed two years [after] cancer and chemotherapy," she said. "I made my competition between cancer and chemotherapy. This is different."
When Engquist learned she had cancer, she said in April, "my first reaction was that I did not want to live any longer." The doctor who gave the diagnosis said her competitive career was over. Johan Engquist, her husband and manager, said today she cried constantly until she had completed her first chemotherapy session. Her spirit lifted after that, he said, but she couldn't get out of bed for 24 hours. "The chemotherapy is very strong," he said. "It is very, very tough."
In addition to the three-hour chemotherapy sessions at a hospital in Sweden, Engquist has received special treatment via what is called an "ice hat," a medical device that freezes the outer layers of the scalp to keep one's hair from falling out during chemotherapy. The ice hat has worked; Engquist has lost little of her blonde-highlighted hair. But it's come at a cost. "It's a terrible treatment," Johan said. "It's like putting your head for three hours in a deep freezer."
Engquist told her doctors she wanted no pain killers to stem the side effects of chemotherapy, believing that more drugs would mean a longer recovery time. And she wanted to get back on the track as soon as possible. "I cannot have survival as my only goal," she said soon after her surgery.
Four days after her mastectomy, Engquist was back at practice, jogging easily. Eleven days later, she was practicing normally--almost normally. Even now, her husband said, she lacks the energy for her old routine. She used to train 11-12 times per week. Now she trains 6-8.
Engquist returned to competition at the end of July. Her first race took place in Stockholm, and the hometown crowd gave her such a long and emotional ovation the other competitors actually joined in the applause. The tribute left Engquist in tears, moments before the start of her race.
Running on adrenaline, she won.
It was her only victory in four races this summer. Even Engquist acknowledges that she isn't a favorite here, despite being the defending world champion. The top hurdler in the world is Olga Shishigina of Kazakhstan, who defeated Engquist in Zurich on Aug. 11.
Still, Engquist's face brightened once the discussion turned from cancer to this week's competition and her attachment to Sweden.
The Russian-born Engquist was lovingly adopted by the Swedes long before being diagnosed with cancer. When she became a citizen in June 1996 after her marriage to Johan, she insisted upon speaking nothing but Swedish. A month later, she won the Olympic gold in Atlanta. She frequently paints her nails with small Swedish flags. Today she said Swedish is her favorite language.
"She's completely Swedish," said Pamela Anderson, a journalist from the newspaper Expressen. "Everybody loves her in Sweden."
Veteran U.S. track star Gail Devers, who is recovering from a hamstring injury but will compete in the 100 hurdles, said she has closely watched Engquist's progress this summer.
"She was in my prayers daily," Devers said. "When I saw she was going to compete in her first race, I was very excited. . . . Each time she is competing, she is getting stronger and faster.
"She will be back."