Swimmer Franziska Van Almsick became the symbol of a reunited Germany and a huge star in her homeland when she took the world by storm as a 14-year-old at Barcelona 1992. She went on to compete at four editions of the Olympic Games, winning a total of 10 medals.
Eastern promiseVan Almsick spent her childhood in the German Democratic Republic, living in an apartment in East Berlin, not far from the Wall. At the age of five she followed her older brother’s lead by taking up swimming. She showed a natural talent for the sport and quickly got herself noticed, joining the SC Dynamo Berlin sports club, while continuing her studies at a sports academy. As an 11-year-old she won nine gold medals at the East German Spartakiad, prompting her father to put up a sticker in her room with the words “Barcelona 1992” written on it.
Symbol of unificationFollowing German reunification in 1990, Franzi went on to compete under the flag of the new Germany, and at 14 she stole the show at the Barcelona Games. As well as collecting bronze medals in the 100m freestyle and the 4x100m freestyle relay, she finished 0.015 of a second behind the USA’s Nicole Haslett to win silver in the 200m freestyle, and picked up another silver partnering Dagmar Hase, Jana Dorries and Daniela Hunger in the 4x100m medley relay, which was won by the Americans. Her spontaneity and cherubic face made her the first sports star of her newly reunited nation, and she appeared across the country on TV, magazine covers and billboards.
Peak of her powersVan Almsick nearly swept the board at the 1993 European Championships in Sheffield, winning golds in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events, the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays and the 4x100m medley relay. The only event she didn’t win was the 100m butterfly, in which she picked up silver. That same year she was voted German Sportswomen of the Year, European Swimmer of the Year and World Swimmer of the Year. At the World Championships in Rome 12 months later she won the 200m freestyle title in a time of 1:56.47, smashing a world record that had stood for eight years. Van Almsick made off with another five medals at the 1995 Europeans in Vienna, coming home first in the 100m and 400m individual freestyle events and in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays, and taking second place in the 50m freestyle. Disappointment would follow at Atlanta 1996, however, when Costa Rica’s Claudia Poll edged her to the 200m freestyle title, one that all of Germany had expected her to win. Weighed down by the pressure of the occasion, the 18-year-old Van Almsick said she lost the race before she even touched in the water.
A final flourishThe victim of a serious motorcycling accident in May 1997, Franzi recovered in time to represent her country again at Sydney 2000, where individual success eluded her, though she did manage to claim another bronze medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay. She was back on top again at the 2002 Europeans in Berlin, winning five more titles and trimming her own 200m freestyle world record down to 1:56.64, a mark that would not be bettered for another five years. Appearing in her fourth and final Olympic Games at Athens 2004, the girl from Berlin won her tenth and last medal in the 4x100m medley relay, subsequently announcing her retirement and starting a family. Still a much-loved figure in Germany, she remains the most successful female swimmer in Olympic history never to have won gold.