She was eight years old, maybe nine. The big wall at the end of
the playground at the Robert Koch elementary school did not seem
strange to her. She remembers no great conversations about it,
no explanations. A 15-foot wall is a 15-foot wall when you are
eight. Or maybe nine. The barbed wire at the top did not seem
strange because it had always been there. Even the fact that the
windows on that side of the school were painted black was not
surprising. Wasn't that the same at all schools, everywhere?
Franziska van Almsick probably could have gone a few more years
never noticing the wall, never wondering what was on the other
side, except one bright East Berlin day, while everyone was
playing soccer during recess, another kid kicked the ball very
hard. Up and up it went, higher and higher, up and over the
wall! Franzi and the rest of the kids stared. The ball was gone?
Where did it go? A boundary to life had been discovered. What
would happen next?
The ball suddenly came back.
Franzi was delighted. Kick the ball over the wall and it would
come back? She picked up the ball and kicked it over the wall
The ball came back again.
Three or four times she repeated the process. A teacher suddenly
hurried out and took the ball away. Franzi was reprimanded in
front of everyone else. Never kick the ball over the wall. Never
throw anything over the wall. Never do anything with the wall.
No one ever kicked the ball over the wall again, but now there
was a change. What was on the other side? There was a question.
She was 11 when the wall was torn down in 1989. She no longer
went to the elementary school because now she attended a special
school for athletes. She was a swimmer. Her brother, Sebastian,
five years older, was also a swimmer, and she had started in the
sport simply by following him to workouts and meets. She seemed
to have a gift. Coaches noticed her. They put her through a
series of tests, looking at her size and coordination. If she
had been short and heavy, the officials would have rejected her,
but she was tall and limber. She became a swimmer. That was how
the East German system worked.
"If I'd lived somewhere else in the country, on a farm or
somewhere, I would have had to go to a boarding school," she
says. "But since I lived in Berlin, I could live at home and
attend the school in Berlin. I took a train and then a streetcar
every day for an hour and a half to get there. The school was
set up to help training. Classes did not start until 10:30 in
the morning so we could train. School was finished at 4:30 so we
could train again. If we went away for a training camp, the
classes were suspended until we came back. We could pick up our
lessons where we had left them. High-performance sport was very
important in East Germany."
Now there suddenly was no East Germany. Her parents and her
brother went to the Brandenburg Gate to watch the excitement,
the wall coming down, East and West suddenly reunited. She
stayed home. Her parents said she was too young to venture out
into the large crowd. She didn't understand what it all meant.
She watched the pictures on television and cut out the
Soviet-related logo from the middle of the old GDR flag that she
had. That seemed to be the thing to do. Everybody was doing it.
Her mother, Jutta, said that for the first time in her life she
felt she could breathe, but Franzi felt none of that. Hadn't she
already been breathing fine? She was happy. Maybe lines at the
stores would disappear, but what other changes could come? She
soon found out.
One of the first of the country's dirty little secrets to be
exposed, almost as soon as the wall disappeared, involved her
sport. The longtime allegations by the West were true. The use
of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs had been
rampant in East Germany, especially in women's sports (in which
they have a bigger effect on performance than in men's), and
most especially in women's swimming. Even glorious GDR champions
like Kristin Otto and Kornelia Ender were touched by scandal.
The wet footsteps on the tile floor, the ones Franzi had been
following, would have led her to...this?
"It was all a shock," she says. "These were my idols. I was too
young to be involved, but I think now, What would have happened
if all of this never had come out? What would have happened to
me? I probably would have followed right along."
The thought scares her.
When she showed up at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, she was
14. No one beyond the reconstructed borders of her country
really knew her. She had been too young to compete in either the
European championships or the world junior championships. This
was her first major international competition. Her father,
Bernd, had given her brother a sticker four years earlier that
said BARCELONA '92, but it was Franzi who stuck it on her
bedroom window and announced that she would be there. Sure. Here
The situation had changed for swimmers from the former East
Germany. Many of the coaches had been fired. There were no more
special sports schools. Even the big pool at the Dynamo sports
complex in East Berlin no longer was the championship swimmers'
private workplace. Recreational swimmers used the pool too.
Franzi had persevered, stuck with her sport. Her coach, Dieter
Lindemann, liked her natural talent, first of all, but he also
liked her attitude. She was not one of those swimmers who sat in
the corner, accepted everything he said, then went into the pool
and worked at an obedient, metronomic pace. She asked questions.
She challenged. She knew when to work hard, when to move slower.
"The quiet ones are never the champions," Lindemann says. "I
like the one who always has something to say."
Her first race was the 100-meter freestyle on the opening day of
competition at the Games. The big buzz at the finish was that
China's Zhuang Yong had upset world-record holder Jenny Thompson
of the United States, starting a Chinese rush of gold medals in
women's swimming. But the buzz for Franzi was her own
third-place finish. Bronze. She had an Olympic medal.
The next day, she had silver. Swimming in her favorite event,
the 200, she finished a tenth of a second behind gold medal
winner Nicole Haislett of the U.S. Haislett's time was 1:57.9.
Franzi's time was 1:58.0. For a moment she was overwhelmed by
what she had done. Silver. The Olympics! Then she started
thinking about how close she had come to gold. She watched a
replay of the race and saw places where she could have made up
that extra tenth of a second and more. She had stayed too close
to the rope separating the lanes. She had been sloppy on her
turns. She could have had gold so easily.
"I watched the replay twice," she says. "I've never watched it
since. I didn't want to see it."
A curious thing happened, though, with the second-place finish.
She became a star. Not a star throughout the world, perhaps, but
a German star. A unified German star. Adding another silver and
another bronze in relay races, she came home with four medals
and discovered that her life had changed forever.
This was the first German Summer Olympics team since
reunification, and national divisions still existed. Athletes
were Ossis or Wessis, East or West, their former colors still
attached to their present deeds. She was neither. She was too
young for past allegiances. She simply was "Franzi," German,
everyone's favorite swimmer.
"It was a lucky time for her," her manager, Werner Koster, says.
"One fact that was very important was that she came from Berlin.
The Berlin accent, East or West, is no different. If she had
come from some other part of the East, from Dresden or Leipzig,
she would have been recognizable through her accent, and who
knows what would have happened. Here? She was just German."
"I was from the East," Franzi says, "and I had a big mouth.
People liked that."
She spoke her mind. She made people laugh. She was young and
fashion-magazine beautiful. Franzi! Germany had been waiting for
her, or at least for someone like her. She was part of the
"So Boris Becker told me I could get my driver's license, no
problem, in the U.S.," Franzi says. "In Germany you have to be
18, but in the U.S., it is 16. Boris got his license in the U.S.
So I went for the test in Florida and there is one thing Boris
forgot to tell me ... it's all in English! My English was not
very good. The written part, I just guessed answers. I flunked.
The driving part, I flunked also. The instructor would give me
directions in English. I didn't know what he was talking about.
I went through a stop sign."
"I met an old man one day on the street in Berlin," she says.
"He said I looked an awful lot like Franzi. I told him other
people had told me that, but, no, I was not Franzi. We talked
for a while about Franzi. He said he liked Franzi. I said I
liked her too."
"Sometimes I feel like I'm 40 years old," she says. "Sometimes
it frightens me that so many things have come in my life
already. I didn't even come of age until April. Eighteen years
She has become, in the four years since Barcelona, a Germanic
version of Gidget, soaked in chlorine. To put her on a U.S.
scale of popularity, you probably would mention the names of
Mary Lou Retton, Nancy Kerrigan, and maybe Drew Barrymore or
Rachel, from the cast of Friends. She has become a millionaire
through endorsements, personal appearances and even a workout
video. Her Opel commercial, in which she drives a metallic blue
Tigra into an open water main and out the other side to escape a
traffic jam, is a national favorite. She has twice had her own
television specials. She has been on the covers of the big
German magazines. She has become the country's teenage heroine.
"In the beginning there were some uncomfortable moments," says
Koster. "There is an award here, the Bambi, which is given for
television, sort of like your Emmy. In the Bambi, though, there
is a category for televised sports performance. After the
Olympics a miniature Bambi was given to all of the German gold
medal winners, but to Franzi...she received the big one. She sat
at this table with all of these other athletes who had won gold
and she had won silver, and still she walked up to receive the
"Say this, though, popularity can only last so long without
performance. There comes a time when people say, 'Well, yes, but
what has she really done?' When that time came, Franzi did it.
Her popularity has grown every year."
She also has emerged as one of the best freestyle swimmers in
the world. She had the fastest times in the world in 1995 in the
100, 200 and 400 frees. In '92 and '93 she was voted the most
popular athlete in Germany, beating out Becker, Steffi Graf and
an assortment of soccer stars, and in '93 and last year she was
named German sportswoman of the year.
Best of all, Franzi is always a story. Take the world record in
the 200. What could be controversial about that? Well, it was
set at the 1994 world championships in Rome, in a race she
almost didn't swim. In the heats, sometimes a problem for that
unfocused Franzi, she finished ninth, leaving her ineligible for
the final. Luckily, teammate Dagmar Hase, who had finished
eighth, withdrew from the final, saying she did not feel well.
Franzi took her place and set the record. Newspapers from around
the world ran with the story that Dagmar had been paid to
withdraw because so much money was invested in Franzi. True?
False? What did it matter?
"I didn't even want to be in the final," Franzi says. "I went to
that race...I've never had this feeling. I just didn't care. I
swam. I didn't care. I looked up at the end. World record."
The European championships last year in Vienna? Another bad heat
in the 200. She had to swim the B final, in which medals are not
awarded. The result? She knocked five seconds off her morning
performance, swimming a time that would have blown away the A
field. Oh, that Franzi! She won five gold medals in Vienna, but
the story was her B final performance. Well, the B final and
The Hitler business had developed from an interview in the
French sports newspaper, L'Equipe. Franzi had talked about a
number of things in the interview, including her interest in
history, her favorite subject in school. What did she like about
history? She was fascinated with World War II and by the rise of
Hitler, how he had captured the minds of a nation. She had read
Mein Kampf and said he was "cunning." The tabloids grabbed the
"All of a sudden, I'm a Nazi," Franzi says. "I didn't say Hitler
was good. I said the opposite, that he was horrible and did some
horrible things, but there was one day off in the European
championships and everybody needed something to write. They
There have been stories about her relationship with her
boyfriend, Steffen Zesner, a German swimmer who will also
compete in Atlanta and who happens to be 10 years older. There
have been stories about her mother, allegations that Jutta, a
gymnastics coach, was also an informer for the Stasi, the GDR's
secret police. Allegations denied. There have been stories and
more stories. Franzi! She has become an industry. She has toured
the world since Barcelona, competing and training. She lived for
11 weeks last year with a family in Coral Springs, Fla., to
learn English. She dropped out of high school this year, when
she would have been a senior, to train for the Olympics, afraid
that if she tried to stay in school, her marks would suffer and
she would have trouble getting into a good university. She will
return to school in the winter.
Her life has become this huge, inflated balloon, this dirigible
of notoriety. Even qualifying for Atlanta became a show. She did
not swim a strong race until the third day of the German trials,
winning the 200 after failing to make the team in the 400 and
qualifying for the 100 only by tying for second. She will swim
the 100, the 200 and two relays, but the German press was in a
dither. What was wrong with the country's aquatic heroine? Had
her time been spread too thin with promotional stops and
interviews? Had money and fame corrupted her talent? Or was she
simply being her unpredictable self? "If I hadn't qualified in
the 200," she told German TV, "I would have gotten a piece of
rope and hung myself."
Her heart is in the East, the country she knew. That is the side
of Berlin where she still lives in the same modest house,
sleeping in the same bedroom where she put that Barcelona
sticker on the window eight years ago. She knows that all the
money and much of the fame would not have come if the wall at
the edge of the school playground had not disappeared, but she
is saddened by some things that have happened. The people of the
East remain the poor cousins at the German table, salaries
lower, housing inferior, life inferior.
"I can pick out someone from the East in Berlin," she says. "We
are the people...I don't know how to say this in English, we are
the people carrying the plastic bags, shopping bags, while the
people from the West have other kinds of bags. We are the people
who always have a look of wonder on us when we see things. If
you took us to New York, we would be the ones looking at the
tall buildings. The ones from the West would be just going about
She mentions New York because this is the one place she picked
to visit with her family. Her mother and father, when she was
young, always talked about visiting America in general and New
York in particular. It was a faraway East German dream that
never could happen. But Franzi made it happen. At the end of her
stay in Florida, she sent plane tickets for her parents and
brother to meet her in New York for a three-day weekend. "We did
everything," she says. "We went to the top of the Empire State
Building. We walked on Fifth Avenue. Trump Tower. We went to a
Broadway show, Beauty and the Beast. It was everything my
parents always wanted."
In the middle of the weekend she took the family to Central Park
and made everyone sit on a bench. She said that if they waited,
actor Tom Cruise would walk past. "We sat there for an hour and
a half," she says. "Tom never came. So sad. We got up and left."
Too bad, Tom. You could have met Franzi.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER IN THE POOL OR OUT, VAN ALMSICK (POSING FOR A GERMAN CLOTHING AD) IS A MEGAWATT STAR [Franziska van Almsick swimming; Franziska van Almsick at photo shoot]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER SINCE WINNING A SURPRISING FOUR MEDALS IN '92, AT AGE 14, VAN ALMSICK (TRAINING IN SPAIN) HAS MATURED INTO ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP FREESTYLERS [Franziska van Almsick in swimming pool]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER "I WAS FROM THE EAST, AND I HAD A BIG MOUTH," FRANZI SAYS OF HER RISE TO FAME. "PEOPLE LIKED THAT" [Franziska van Almsick]
COLOR PHOTO: HENNING BANGER/MASTERMEDIA SPORT VAN ALMSICK HAS MADE A SPLASH ON THE COVERS OF TOP GERMAN MAGAZINES AND WITH HER OWN TV SPECIALS [Franziska van Almsick making splash in swimming pool]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER VAN ALMSICK (WITH ZESNER AT THE BRANDENBURG GATE) WAS 11 WHEN THE WALL CAME DOWN IN HER NATIVE BERLIN [Steffen Zesner and Franziska van Almsick]