It is a month before the start of the Olympic Games and Yamile Aldama is sitting on a park bench in Kew Gardens, spilling her heart out. Her face betrays delicacy and frailty but her words, still carrying the Hispanic timbre of her native Cuba, convey perhaps the most traumatic and yet inspirational life's journey of any member of this British Olympic team.
It is a wonder, when listening to her litany of hardships, that any commentator could have the temerity to label her a 'plastic Brit'. And it is perhaps more remarkable that the 39 year-old, who leapt into Monday morning's triple jump final at her first attempt, has mustered the courage to be competing at these Games at all.
Rare indeed is the athlete who grows up in penury in Havana, sees her husband imprisoned for 7 1/2 years for drugs trafficking, finds her British passport application rejected, ekes out an existence as a lonely single mother in London, and still somehow survives to tell the tale.
"I'm a very strong person, naturally," Aldama says. "I have always had that strength. I can take a lot."
What happened to her in the autumn of 2001, though, would have broken the will of a lesser woman. Having recently married Andrew Dodds, a Scottish television producer learning Spanish in Cuba, she had emigrated to London to start her life afresh. The couple were enjoying a quiet afternoon with their six-month-old baby, watching football on television at their flat in Limehouse, when they heard a knock at the door. In marched the police, armed with the revelation that Dodds, in a plot to which Aldama had been utterly oblivious, was implicated in a pounds 40 million drug-running operation. A couple of miles away, in a warehouse rented by Dodds, lay 100kg of heroin.
Aldama scarcely knew what to think. The business of leaving Cuba had been tortuous enough, given that the country's Institute of Sport was reluctant to let such a talent - one who had already finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics - leave without a fight.
Bound by her family ties, she had never intended to forsake her homeland, but that was before she fell in love.
"It would have been difficult for Andrew to find a job in Cuba," she recalls. "So I said, 'OK, I will go with you to England'."
In one devastating disclosure, that sacrifice was rendered worthless.
"I was blank," she says. "I didn't understand what was happening. After I found out, I talked to my husband at length. There were mixed feelings because, as he told me at the time, 'It's a good thing I didn't mention anything to you, in case the police came after you, too.' But from the first day I decided that I wanted to stand by him and carry on with my life."
Why? Did Dodds' crime not constitute the most heinous betrayal?
"No, it wasn't even a difficult decision," replies Aldama, whose unstinting family loyalty was fostered as the second youngest of seven children. "It was probably due to the way my mum and dad brought me up. We're very faithful, when people are good to us. He made his mistake in 1999, before we were together. It had nothing to do with me. From the moment we met, he had been a great: a fantastic husband, good father, somebody who was kind to my parents. I had no reason not to stand by him."
You think, at 39, that your career is finished. If my mother makes it, it will her first time ever in Britain. The last time she watched me in competition, in Havana, I was 12 years old.
Only she could appreciate, though, the personal privations to which her fidelity would lead. From the first night that she spent alone with her six-month-old baby in a king-size bed, the sense of solitude cut her to the core. She had no income, only the most halting English, and her application for a British passport had stalled in light of Dodds's arrest.
"It was unbelievably tough," she remembers. "One day you have something, the next day you have nothing. There were a few friends who got in touch, but not a lot. It was a time when I discovered who my true friends were."
One practical and immediate concern was how, as a recent arrival in Britain with no knowledge of London's labyrinthine road network, she would set about the two-hour commute each day from the East End to her training base at Barnet Copthall leisure centre.
"I think for the first two months, I was lost most days driving," says Aldama, who estimates that she collected 10 parking tickets in four weeks.
In desperation she would call her coach, Frank Attoh, who would ask her if she could see any signs. "I didn't know the city and had no idea of where I was every day, every night. Like everyone in life, you have episodes when everything is going downhill and you say, 'Why?' These were hard times, but you have to stand strong. I had my relatives in Cuba and my young son, and I had to provide for them. I don't think I had time to be sorry for myself I just had to carry on living, to find a way."
Memories of her straitened upbringing helped her.
"I was born in Cuba and I didn't have too much, so I was able to cope when things fell apart. I had suffered before," she says.
She reflects how she would take her baby to the Barnet track even on perishing winter days. There was often no alternative. Little Amil sat in the pram swaddled in blankets as Attoh, her coach of 10 years' standing, occasionally took him in arms and said: 'Run Yami, run.' Attoh, a kindly figure whom Aldama describes as the "perfect" match for her, says: "Yamile's special. She's incredible."
Against such adversity Aldama was still, faintly miraculously, producing prodigious jumps. In 2003 she recorded seven leaps over 15 metres, a feat that no female triple-jumper has matched since, although such success was eliciting unwanted attention from the media. She resolved at last to tell her parents about Dodds's conviction and prison sentence. But she was also harbouring another secret: as the Home Office repeatedly turned down her passport applications, she did not even have a country to represent.
"I had hopes that everything would be OK," she says.
"I thought that I would have my citizenship, but it didn't come through. I tried everything." Aldama's manager received invitations for her to switch allegiance to Spain or Italy, but she alighted upon an offer from Sudan, which she accepted.
"That's what I had to do. I couldn't sit around and wait for the Home Office, for whenever they decided they would give me my passport. The only reason I went to Sudan was to compete. The Sudanese were good to me - they didn't have any money, but I couldn't say anything bad about them."
She travelled to the 2004 Olympics in Athens under the Sudanese flag, but her aspiration of an Olympic medal was again thwarted as she could manage only fifth. That result was highly creditable, given the complexity of combining training with her competitive schedule for the strife-torn African nation, which took her everywhere from Congo to Mauritius. Throughout those journeys she still shielded her son from the truth about his father; indeed, only this year did she decide to tell him.
"It was just after I won the world indoor title in Istanbul in March. It was the best time to do it, because the story about Andrew would have been on television and Amil would have found out about it from somebody at school. He was mature. Of course, he asked questions and was quite quiet, but he took it very well."
Aldama concedes that by the time of the Beijing Games in 2008, where she again reached the triple jump final, her mental well-being was frayed to breaking point. The turnaround came finally when Andrew was released in September 2009, and she could savour a semblance of family life once more.
"That made a massive difference. That was what became the turning point in my athletics career and in my life. I can't deny that 2008 was a terrible year for me - I was so down. But when he was released, everything started, slowly, to come back."
Her husband works now as a solar panel salesman for a firm in Dorset and is, she insists, fundamentally reformed.
"He learned during those 71/2 years. He was surrounded by some seriously bad people and he had to survive, to protect himself. He assures me he regrets his mistakes and that he is never going to do that again. Sometimes you have to be patient, because there are no short cuts in life. That's one of the things he learned: to wait."
Yamile and Andrew have a recent addition to their number, in the form of second son Diego, born in August 2010. Not that the birth slowed her down unduly; the day after, she was doing gym exercises in hospital. Attoh says: "The day she gave birth, she was throwing away heavy radiators, when her waters broke and she was taken to hospital to have a baby. Within a day, she had a heavy Coke bottle, filled it with sand and was doing bicep curls with it. You think, 'Why do you want to do that?' Leave it for a few more weeks before you start training."
But Aldama is, by her own admission, a "crazy" character: crazily driven, crazily resilient. Those qualities have brought her at last to the London Games, marking an emotional culmination to her 25 years in athletics. In that time she has won major medals for three countries, including her silver for World Championships, a silver and a bronze indoors for the Sudanese team, and the hugely gratifying gold in British colours at this season's World Indoors in Istanbul.
An Olympics staged in the country she has fought so hard to represent signals a final act of which she could hardly have dreamt and her performance in yesterday's heats, when she qualified in nonchalant fashion with a leap of 14.45m, suggests she is determined to bow out of Olympic competition in style.
Her father died two months ago, but her mother plans to be at the Olympic Stadium to revel in the occasion. "It's amazing, because I never thought I would be competing at a home Olympics, or that my family could be here to watch," Aldama says. "You think, at 39, that your career is finished. If my mother makes it, it will her first time ever in Britain. The last time she watched me in competition, in Havana, I was 12 years old."
Chris Tomlinson, the long-jumper also mentored by Attoh, attests to Aldama's longevity. "Yami's 39 and yet she's a real gold medal contender," he says. "People are now starting to think, 'Maybe I don't have to retire at 35. Maybe I can keep going. As long as my heart and my head are in it, why not?'?"
Such is the example set by Aldama, one can hardly blame her for bristling with resentment at the mention of the dreaded 'plastic' moniker. For this proud and extraordinarily courageous woman, the definition 'plastic Brit' is a hideous affront to her struggle.
"If people want to say I'm plastic, that's their problem," she says. "I don't care what those people say, this is about what I feel. I have the right people around me now and they make sure that I don't pay attention to those things. I would be wasting my energy - and I need that energy for this summer."
She pauses, dwelling for an instant on that offending word.
"I'm not plastic. I know I'm not."
The Telegraph, London