AT 16, German swimmer Franziska van Almsick has yet to win an
Olympic gold medal, but she has achieved something much rarer in her
largely uncelebrated sport: mononymity. She is simply ''Franzi'' to
the legions of German fans who hound her for autographs, buy the
products she pitches, gawk at the billboards she graces, read the
magazines she appears in, watch the TV show she hosts. In the three
years since she gave notice of her precocious talent by winning four
medals (two silver, two bronze) at the 1992 Olympics, she has made
millions in endorsements and become the first superstar athlete of
unified Germany. Steffi who? Boris who?
But the burden of celebrity can weigh heavily on someone still
loaded down with schoolbooks. ''People on the street will stop and
stare, walk on a little more, but then come back and stare again,''
says van Almsick. ''And usually they will shout something like 'Hey,
Herbert, it's her!' and then leave again. It just ruins my whole day
when clowns like that waltz by.''
During a recent three-month stay in Coral Springs, Fla., where she
was training, studying English and trying to escape the pressures of
public adoration, van Almsick was never far from the thoughts of her
countrymen. Opel, one of the seven companies that pay her a total of
$2 million a year to endorse their products, sent her a sports car;
after the steering developed a glitch, the company flew a mechanic
over to fix it. When her U.S. driver's license was issued, it was
front-page news back home.
''She is without a doubt the most popular athlete in Germany,''
says Michael Lohberg, who used to coach in West Germany. ''In this
country, I can only compare her to Michael Jordan.''
Like Jordan's, van Almsick's popularity stems from poise,
charisma, savvy marketing, sleek good looks and, above all,
transcendent ability. ''Her stroke efficiency is unbelievable,'' says
Lohberg, who now coaches the Coral Springs Swim Club. ''She looks
absolutely effortless in the water, like a dolphin. Her elbow is
perfect, her head is perfect. When she moves an ear, she moves
forward; when she wiggles a toe, she moves forward. To watch her is
really to watch art. She is as close to a fish as you can get.''
Born in East Berlin to an engineer father and a mother who coached
gymnastics (when she wasn't serving as an informer for the Stasi, the
East German secret police), Franziska started swimming at a local
pool at age five. Two years later, talent scouts measured her wrists
and ankles, tested blood from her earlobe and deemed her worthy to
enter the GDR's formidable training system. Though van Almsick
credits the program and its coaches for much of her success, her
performance hasn't suffered since the country's dissolution five &
In fact, her career has been on a sharp ascent, with no peak in
sight. At the 1993 European Championships in Sheffield, England, van
Almsick took home a record six gold medals. Shortly thereafter, she
was named Swimming World's International Swimmer of the Year, the
youngest person ever so honored.
However, at the world championships in Rome last September, her
youth betrayed her when she miscalculated the effort required to
qualify for the final in the 200 freestyle. She placed ninth in the
preliminaries, one place too low to earn a berth in the final. But
after teammate and eighth qualifier Dagmar Hase gave her spot to van
Almsick, Franzi churned to a gold medal in a world-record time of
It is a performance she would like to improve upon at the '96
Olympics -- because the swimmer who seems to have it all, in fact,
does not. ''My goal is Atlanta, naturally,'' says van Almsick.
''After all, I haven't achieved an Olympic gold medal. Yet.''
This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1995 issue