Therese Alshammar might show you her tattoo. But only if she
likes you. Or wants to use you. Or is in the mood. The tattoo is
in the very small of her sleek and powerful back, below the line
of her swimsuit, in a spot where a paramour might place his hand
if he were dancing with her. She might even show it to you by
slipping off her shirt without embarrassment and then kneeling,
so you might study the contrast of the blue-black letters
against her smooth, tanned skin and admire how the arch of her
back makes the letters ripple: DIVA. Alshammar is Swedish,
unfettered by American prudishness. Feline, she might pose, chin
up, unabashed by the stares of passersby.
"Diva means goddess in Latin, you know," Alshammar says with a
sly smile. She is raven-haired (this month) and thin-lipped, with
striking gray eyes that pierce on command. Her English is
excellent, the lilting Scandinavian accent plowed under by two
years at Nebraska. "My friends in Sweden all used to call me
that: 'You bleeping diva, you think you're so great.' I was a bit
of a lazy girl. A tosser." She notices the blank expression. "A
tosser is someone who's not giving it her best all the time. The
tattoo was done in the spring of 1997 in Arizona, while I was
visiting schools. I showed it to one photographer, and it became
a big thing in the Swedish papers. That's all right. That's what
I think I am. I think all women are divas."
Hmm. Yet certainly not all divas are Olympic athletes--and
world-record holders--and not all Olympians are alluring enough to
be named Sweden's sexiest woman, as Alshammar was in 1998 by
Cafe, a popular Swedish men's magazine. "That's fun, but it
didn't change my life," she says. "I don't list it as one of my
major achievements." Still, asked if she's relinquished her
crown, she says coyly, "Once the sexiest, always the sexiest.
It's for life."
This is a lady built for the 21st century. She's not human; she's
a heroine out of a video game. The 23-year-old Alshammar has
cover-girl looks, a physique sculpted for power and speed, and an
independent streak as wide as an eagle's wingspan. The sexiest
woman in Sweden also chews snuff with the ardor of a cowboy--in
May she had her teeth whitened to get rid of the tobacco stains.
Undeterred by the health risks, Alshammar vows to continue to put
a pinch between her cheek and gums whenever she feels the need to
relax. "Two things I'll never give up: snuff and coffee," she
says with a shrug.
She also happens to be one of the best freestyle swimmers on the
planet. "She's just finding out how good she can be," says her
best friend, Destiny Lauren, a fellow Swedish swimmer who tried
to get Alshammar to change her name to Divine the day she got her
tattoo. (Lauren changed her name from Mikaela to Destiny that
day.) "Ninety percent of swimming is mental, and Therese is
strong that way. She's forward, very cocky, very confident."
As her performances of the past year indicate, she should be.
After years of cultivating a party-girl image, Alshammar has
blossomed under German coach Dirk Lange, with whom she trains in
Hamburg, and become a medal favorite in both the 50 and the 100
freestyle in Sydney. During the European championships last
December in Lisbon, she set the short-course world records at
those distances and then eclipsed those times last March in
Athens at the world short-course championships, swimming a 23.59
and a 52.17, respectively. Most of the world's top freestylers
were at the worlds, including Sandra Volker of Germany, who also
trains under Lange, and Jenny Thompson of the U.S., a five-time
Olympic gold medalist and the American-record holder in the 100.
"I've kicked Thompson's butt a couple of times," Alshammar says.
No shrinking violet, she. She's a beauty with brass balls.
A woman with those qualities knows where she stands, and where
she has been, which in Alshammar's case is further afield than
most. She's always been torn between living--really living--and
sticking to a regimen of serious training. Her mother,
Britt-Marie, was a breaststroker at the 1972 Olympics. Now a
pistol-packing undercover policewoman, Britt-Marie taught Therese
(the eldest of the two daughters she had with husband Krister, a
house painter) to swim, saw her potential and coached her until
she was 10. Then she wisely passed Therese off to other coaches
and stepped back to watch her go through all the adolescent
"My goal had always been to beat my mother, to be better than
her," Therese says, "but when I reached 13, I didn't like
swimming that much and wanted to quit. My friends were hanging
out all the time, and there I was, training. I was bored. My mom
said, 'Take four weeks off this summer, and in the fall we'll
In the fall, Therese agreed to enroll in the best junior sports
club in Sweden. She began living away from home, training five
and six hours a day, going to school with other swimmers. That
regimen eventually drove her up the wall and AWOL. When she was
16 she up and took a two-week skiing trip with her boyfriend. "I
told my parents school was on holiday, though it wasn't," she
says. "It was great fun. Then my mother called and said she'd
gotten a letter from school saying I was missing. 'What about
your training?' she asked. I told her that skiing was training,
in a way. My father told me I had to make a decision. I was
screwing up school and screwing up swimming. So I switched to a
normal school. It's too boring to just hang out with other
swimmers. That helped clear my mind."
She made the Swedish national team, but in 1995 her undisciplined
behavior landed her in trouble with the coaches. "I was thrown
off the team," Alshammar says. "They thought I was an unserious
kid. I was 18."
The next year, her suspension over, she trained hard and made
the Swedish Olympic team as a backstroker, but she was mentally
drained before she arrived in Atlanta and finished a
disappointing 16th in the 100 meters. Afterward she wanted to get
away from swimming, so she and Lauren, who'd failed to make the
Swedish Olympic team, bought around-the-world airline tickets and
spent the next four months in Australia. "The first month, we
spent in Melbourne, going to the beach every day, surfing, having
massages, tanning, clubbing, hanging out," Alshammar says,
smiling at the memory. "I needed a change of environment."
She and Lauren also joined a swimming club in Australia and
trained there for three months without a coach. Alshammar, eager
to put the memory of Atlanta behind her, began to concentrate on
the freestyle. She and Lauren returned to Sweden and rejoined the
national team in time for the April 1997 world short-course
championships in Goteborg, Sweden, where Alshammar won a bronze
medal on a relay.
That spring Alshammar visited American colleges and got her
tattoo (she has a second one, a copyright sign, beneath the diva,
seen only by exceptional friends) and a full scholarship to
Nebraska. She chose that over USC because she knew that the wild
child in her couldn't resist the temptations of Southern
California. "If I'd lived in L.A., I'd have done so much else
besides swimming and studying that I'd have been constantly
distracted," says Alshammar. "At Lincoln it was just swim, go to
school, swim, go to school. They had great weight-training
facilities, good food, and I had good friends, which are more
important than good environs. It was a very multinational team
[which included four Swedes, a Norwegian and a South African]."
Others at Nebraska give a somewhat livelier account of
Alshammar's two years at the school. They cite, for example, the
time that Alshammar, while doing a photo shoot for a Swedish
album cover, painted herself silver and walked through downtown
Lincoln topless, creating the predictable uproar. "She is her own
person, and she makes up her own mind about things," says
Cornhuskers sprints coach Keith Moore. Adds head coach Cal Bentz:
"She wasn't always as focused on her training as you might
desire, but when she did focus, she went straight to the top of
At the 1998 world championships in Perth, Australia, Alshammar's
best finish in an individual event was sixth, in the 50
freestyle. A year later she was DQ'd in the same event at the
world short-course championships because of a false start. The
setback convinced her that if she wanted to reach the next level,
she had to give up school and focus on swimming. "It's hard to do
both well," she says of competing and going to college. "I
decided that the year before the Olympics I'd leave Nebraska and
see how far I could go."
She was invited to train for three weeks in Hamburg with Volker,
the 1996 silver medalist in the 100 free, and be coached by
Lange. Alshammar liked working with him so much that she stayed.
"In Stockholm it's 20 swimmers for one coach," she says. "With
Dirk Lange I got an individualized program. He believes in hard
training, then regeneration. That's the secret most people don't
get. Everyone trains as if they're distance swimmers. But with
Dirk, it's build up and rest. Build up and rest. Make sure you
don't get too tired but train full out. Why do you train slow?
You don't swim slow."
Under Lange, Alshammar swims for an hour in the morning and then
lifts weights for 2 1/2 hours. "We weight-train for explosive
power, which I'd never done," she says. "I used to bench-press
100 pounds 10 times in a row. Now I do 145 pounds in two or three
repetitions. In the afternoon we run--sprints, which are my
favorite thing. Intervals from 10 to 150 meters. If we swim in
the evening, it's for two hours. I'm the same weight I was in
America, 140 pounds [she stands 5'10 3/4"], but my body fat is
Alshammar is also taking the supplement creatine for the first
time, though she's reluctant to attribute her success to that.
"It helps your muscles regenerate," she says, "but I don't think
that's the reason I've improved. It's many reasons. I'm more
dedicated than I was before, more determined, because I like what
I do. I don't find it boring. Dirk gives us all the freedom we
want. He doesn't care what we eat or when we sleep. Most coaches
are not like that. Of course you shouldn't be out till five in
the morning, but he gives us the freedom to decide. I've been to
those parties. I know what they are about. Now I get more
pleasure going to dinner with friends than going clubbing."
What does the post-Sydney future hold for the sexiest woman in
Sweden? A broadcasting career? Modeling? Prince William? "I've
had so many ideas over the years that I disregard them all," says
Alshammar, who claims to be uninvolved romantically. "I'm quite
happy the way things are, and I intend to swim at least four more
years. For a woman, age 24 is your best for performances. When
the time comes to stop, I think I'll know what to do with the
rest of my life."
Divas and goddesses generally do, even those who come with a
she's a heroine out of a video game.